Come New Year's, City Hall operators begin answering the first calls to 311, Philadelphia's one-stop, customer-service, make-government-work-for-you number.

The question's been asked - appropriately, I think - whether a new call center is needed when the city is having to whack libraries and other sacred services.

Arguing on behalf of 311 is Camille Barnett, the city's managing director, who says the money spent on a system that will connect citizens with the services they need will pay off in delivering those services "faster, better and smarter." And that will mean future savings.

Taking the other side is State Rep. Mark Cohen, who predicts the data the city hopes to collect from these calls will only prove that people want more services - which the city cannot afford. And he wonders if the city is leveling with us about the program's real cost.

This all makes me think of a classic Philadelphia story about a stork. It was 1992, and I was covering Northeast Philadelphia. A woman living there discovered what she thought was a stork in her garage, and needed someone to get it out of there. So she called her local committeeman, who called his city councilman, who talked to someone on his staff, who called the Pennsylvania Game Commission's dispatcher in Reading.

Which is how Philadelphia's lone game warden wound up driving out to the lady's house in Millbrook to deal with the stork, which was actually an egret.

Bird trouble

Yesterday, as operators tested the system, 311 supervisor Rosetta Carrington Lue showed me what they would do with a problem bird.

An operator typed "wild animal" onto her screen and called up a number for Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, which responds to such crises.

She said her next step would be to complete a form that logs the problem and generates a tracking number that allows the customer to see how long it takes before the problem is solved. The report would also let city officials know if there is a systemic problem - say, that Northeast Philadelphia was under avian attack.

Cohen describes 311 as a shiny toy we can't afford. He's taken a lot of heat on the Phillyblog site over the past several days for his position. Admittedly, he's sore about the libraries - two of the endangered ones are in his district, including one named for his father, the late city Councilman David Cohen.

After watching an interview with Barnett on WHYY's Web site a few days ago, Cohen hungered for more detail. He noted that elected officials in New Orleans and Denver have groused about the cost and efficiency of their 311 systems.

Another opinion

Reading up on New Orleans' problems led me to Robert Shick, a Rutgers professor who last year studied 14 cities that had call centers.

While Philadelphia has budgeted $2 million for 2009, Shick said that the average city spends $2.99 per resident to run its system, which would put Philadelphia's annual tab around $4.4 million - about the price of the 11 libraries on the block.

"I think we'll beat that cost," Barnett told me. She noted that after the budget crunch loomed, the city opted to purchase off-the-shelf software, transfer operators from other departments, and move into an empty room paid for with state money.

It's impossible to predict just where the city will save, she said, though some efficiencies are more certain. Presumably elected officials and their staffs would be freed from stork calls to attend to other pressing needs.

And it won't just be average Joes who'll know whom to call.

Mannwell Glenn, a deputy managing director, was fired last week after police impounded his car at a traffic stop and he called City Hall, trying to reach out to Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey - another Philadelphia tradition.

I'm not sure how 311 operators would have handled that call, but I would have routed him to SEPTA.