Evanston residents skeptical of new 311 call center

Rebecca Cohen

As Evanston officials laud the opening of a new 311 city call center, some Evanston residents said this week that they are skeptical of its high cost considering the city’s budget deficit.

The information call center will streamline the government’s communication with residents when it opens in March, Ald. Jane Grover (7th) said. Many of her constituents struggle to navigate city services, and they often direct their questions to the wrong people.

“I get a lot of calls from residents who need a new garbage can,” Grover said.

When the center begins operating, callers will know where to turn with these and other questions, as well as for more serious issues like how to deal with a mental health crisis in the family, said Marybeth Schroeder, the director of Leadership Evanston. The idea for the center arose from Leadership Evanston’s summer leadership class, which split into teams to brainstorm projects that would improve the city. One team suggested helping residents find information more efficiently, Schroeder said.

“There are resources out there, but for the average person it’s not always readily apparent,” Schroeder said.

On the other hand, Evanston resident Thomas Arnold, the founder of Tom’s League Consulting, Inc. suggested the most efficient way for people to find information would be using the Internet. The city has never had a call center in the 40 years he has lived here, and it does not need one now, he said.

“People are just lazy,” he said. “They’d rather just call someone.”

Proponents of the center are mistaking Evanston for a larger city, Arnold said. His hometown can be navigated without aid, and with the city facing a deficit of about $3 million, the government cannot afford such a frivolous project, he said.

“Do we always have to parrot Chicago?” Arnold asked.

Some Northwestern students who live off campus also questioned the center’s necessity. Weinberg senior Angela Yu, who rents her residence in Evanston, said she would probably never use it.

“If I actually had a question, I’d probably call my landlords,” Yu said.

Communication junior Ben Millstein, another off-campus student, said he could imagine dialing the center to learn more about the services Evanston offers.

“(NU students) are kind of in a bubble,” Millstein said. “We don’t know a lot about the town’s resources.”

But Evanston’s government might be better off solving its budget woes now and starting new projects later, Millstein added.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz downplayed the center’s cost. Phone operators the city already employs will make up most of its staff, though they will be consolidated at one location, he said. Although he expects the project to cost the city about $600,000 a year, only $50,000 of that will be new spending.

The center will also create a few jobs, which will be filled by Evanston residents, Grover said. The city already posted listings for some of these positions, and the response from people seeking employment has been “incredible,” Grover said. The city is requiring applicants to take qualification tests because officials know the center’s phone operators will be many residents’ only point of contact with the government, she said.

“It will be the face and voice of Evanston,” Grover said.

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