City’s 2012 budget proposal would tweak 311 service

Marshall Cohen

Evanston’s 311 support center may turn into a six-day service next year, cutting Sunday coverage, if the proposed 2012 budget is passed.

Funding for the 311 call center – which currently operates seven days a week – would be reduced by $50,000, according to the proposed budget presented Sunday during a special city council meeting.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said Monday at the city council’s weekly meeting that eliminating 311 on Sundays would not be detrimental to the overall program.

“We feel confident that we will still serve the community in a responsive way,” Bobkiewicz said.

Sue Pontarelli, 311 supervisor, said Sunday coverage would be cut because of the low volume of calls received on that day. The center receives approximately 500 calls on weekdays and 100 calls on Saturdays, but only 40 calls on Sundays, she said.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) suggested during the Monday meeting that citizens might not know 311 is currently available seven days a week.

“I’m wondering if everybody understands it’s operative on Sundays,” Rainey said.

Her office did not respond to messages Thursday.

Evanston residents will still have plenty of options on Sundays next year if they need services or support from the city.

“People can leave a voicemail, they can submit a request through the online service or talk to someone at the front desk,” Pontarelli said.

There are currently seven people who work at the 311 call center, located within the Evanston Police Department, 1454 Elmwood Ave. Pontarelli said cutting Sunday coverage would not cause any layoffs.

“We would have no 311 staff working on Sundays, but we would readjust the schedule and our operators wouldn’t need to come in that day, ” she said. “There would be a couple openings that we just wouldn’t need to fill.”

Cutting operator hours on Sundays makes up $30,000 of the overall budget cut. The remaining $20,000 is money that was set aside for the service and was ultimately unused, city spokesperson Eric Palmer said.

“Originally we put money aside to be prepared for the potentiality that we would be charged by carriers for the service,” Palmer said. “However, we are not getting charged, except for a one-time flat fee from AT&T, and therefore we have $20,000 in savings.”

The 311 service was launched earlier this year on March 1. Rainey expressed concerns about cutting back hours in the middle of the snow season.

“We’ve never had a winter yet with 311,” Rainey said. “Snow events know no space-time continuum.”

Even though 311 will be closed on Sundays, Palmer assured it would reopen if there is inclement weather in order to better serve Evanston residents.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that with any major snow event, the hours of 311 may be extended based on need, even on Sundays,” Palmer said.

Operators have been trained on how to handle snow-related issues during several recent in-service programs, and Pontarelli said she is “excited for the new challenge.”

“We’ve had extensive department level meetings to discuss the amounts of new information that operators will need to respond to problems in the winter,” Pontarelli said. “We are making sure that everyone is up to date on snow emergency plans.”

Operations regarding snow command have already been moved to 311, Palmer added.

City officials also announced this week a series of minor changes to operating procedures to 311, aimed at reducing hassle for callers.

Previously, operators would try to persuade callers to resolve their issue within 311 and not be transferred out to another department. Now, dialogue has been “reduced,” Pontarelli said.

“Some people really need to be transferred and want to talk to a specific person, so we kind of tweaked it and now just ask them if there is anything else we can do, then go ahead and transfer,” Pontarelli said.

A lengthy opening message, which advised callers to hang up and dial 911 if they had an emergency, would also play before callers would actually be connected to a 311 operator. Pontarelli said the introduction was “shortened” and now simply welcomes the caller to “Evanston 311” and warns that calls might be recorded.

[email protected]

Kimberly Railey contributed reporting.