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Queens Chronicle

As 311 Grows, Services It Offers Residents Also Increase

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Posted: Thursday, April 7, 2005 12:00 am

Two years after the city activated a one-stop shopping line for government agencies, the 311 system has expanded to include a number of new services.

In addition to providing a single point of contact for all non-emergency city services, the call center now includes information on hundreds of agencies and public events.

Since the line was activated in March 2003, 311 has received over 13 million calls, according to the city. As of November 2004, the average number of calls per day was about 40,000.

“311 is working phenomenally well,” said Jonathan Werbell, a spokesman for the Department of Information and Technology. “People are calling again and again and finding it’s a great way to get in touch with their government.”

Some of the new services and information provided through the system include recycling schedules, alternate street parking rules, health insurance information and schedules for recreation centers, public pools and golf courses.

A city commission is working on the establishment of a 211 phone system that would deal exclusively with non-profit agencies, according to Werbell, although there are no definite plans yet.

Despite the glitches that some say detract from the 311 system, most agree that the city has made getting in touch easier. Operators answer calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in 170 languages.

Recently, the Department of Information and Technology, the city agency that oversees 311, linked data from the call center to the city’s web site. It is now possible to log on and see the number and type of complaints for each neighborhood in the city.

The easiest way to find the information is to go to www.nyc.gov and from there click on “Mayor’s Management Report” at the bottom of the page. Once the report is accessed, choose “My Neighborhood Statistics.” You can enter your address to see how many complaints and what kinds your neighbors are calling in.

According to the city, the number one complaint from residents is about heat and water. The call center received 62,017 complaints of that kind in February. Next most common are questions about Freon removal in old appliances, followed by complaints about noise from neighbors, lack of maintenance by landlords and parking tickets.

Throughout Queens, complaints regarding blocked driveways and other illegal parking are also common.

Before the system was implemented, it was necessary to find a phone number for the specific government agency responsible for handling the problem. Starting at the end of 2002, workers from several agencies were brought to one office at 59 Maiden Lane in Manhattan.

When a problem involves an agency that is not located at the center, callers are still referred to an outside number.

When the service was established, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it reflected the administration’s commitment to bring government to the people. “I am confident that the new 311 system will vastly improve the way that New York City Government functions,” he said.

Although several community board district managers said the new system is an improvement over the past, there have also been several complaints about the way the city handles complaints.

One of the biggest problems, according to CB 6 District Manager Kathleen Histon of Forest Hills, is that the system does not keep community boards informed after a constituent calls. “311 has many good points. It’s great for information and a lot of things,” she said. “But 311 does not follow up. They receive and disseminate complaints.”

Often when a resident calls, they think the problem has been taken care of, Histon said, but that’s not always the case. Several district managers have requested direct access to the system so they can see for themselves what is happening with problems in their areas.

CB 5 District Manager Gary Giordano of Glendale said his office knows less about the trouble spots in the community than in the past. “One of the main assets of the community board is the ability to prod city agencies to take care of the worst complaints,” he said. “That capacity has diminished because we don’t always know what those complaints are anymore.”

Other glitches that need to be worked out, according to Histon, is that often 311 operators are not familiar with neighborhood concerns. They don’t know how long a problem has been in existence and what has been done in the past to try and fix it.

“There is no history,” she said. “Everything is brand new.”

Still, like Histon, many others who frequently help the public with concerns say what exists now is far better than the previous system.

When callers log a complaint they are given a tracking number so they can follow up with the city agency helping them. “In general it works,” said CB 5 Chairperson Vincent Arcuri Jr. “In the past you may not have been able to follow up at all.”

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., agreed. “It definitely has helped streamline the process,” he said. “It even helps us because we use 311 too. Sometimes we get right through.”

As for reducing the number of complaints that community boards and city councilmen deal with, Murphy said that has not been the case. “We still get a fair number of calls,” he said.

Welcome to the discussion.