By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer

For the first time since Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed raising property taxes to balance the city’s 2011 budget, the tax-paying public on Wednesday will have a chance to weigh in on the issue. This first and only public hearing will be held just hours before the City Council is required by the City Charter to vote into law a roughly $485 million budget.

The public hearing on the proposed millage increase will begin Wednesday at 10 a.m. and conclude in time for the City Council to continue with its regular monthly meeting, a meeting that tomorrow will be dedicated to last-minute wrangling over departmental budgets and of course, the controversial tax increase.

Landrieu has proposed increasing the city’s property tax rate to the maximum approved by voters: a jump of 8.74 mills that amounts to a tax increase of about 7 percent. For the owner of a $150,000 home, the increase would mean paying an additional $75 in taxes per year. The owner of a $500,000 home would pay an additional $381 in taxes.

The millage increase is expected to raise $23 million. Each mill generates about $2.6 million, meaning that for every $2.6 million cut from the city or raised by alternate means, the council can reduce the property tax increase by a mill, which is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of a home’s taxable assessed value, or $10,000 in real value.

Observers say that it is unlikely that many residents will attend tomorrow’s public hearing, given that it is during working hours and was not widely advertised. Prior council budget hearings attracted few observers for similar reasons. The Lens was the only media outlet to attend every day of hearings over the monthlong process.

“People want to weigh in because eventually the money is going to come out of their pocket, but the process makes it difficult,” said Aretha Frison, a representative of the Neighborhood Partnership Network, a coalition of neighborhood leaders and city residents. The organization advocates for a more open and transparent budget process through membership in the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance.  The coalition, to which The Len also belongs, asked the council to release its version of the budget last week so the public would have a chance to review the document before a vote. That obviously did not happen.

Frison said that while she hopes people come out tomorrow, she fears that the general public does not understand what is at stake.

“If I go to the store and someone helps me select an item, I know what it is and what it’ll cost,” she said. “With this budget, it’s like they want to sell us something but they wont tell us what it is.”