The idea of a universal hot line that would handle all citizen calls to City Hall in Omaha is getting another round of consideration.
First, there was a $93,000 study, ordered a year ago, on whether the city needs a 311 phone line. The system would be the go-to place for callers with complaints or questions about public works, planning, parks and other efforts of the Mayor’s Office. It could help speed the city’s response to a variety of issues, but the study said the program would come at a steep cost: $1.2 million over three years.
Now, the city is taking another preliminary step. The goal: sorting out how to cut the cost by assessing what kind of calls come in most, how they are — and should be — handled, and if the results would be worth the final price tag.
The City Council set aside $40,000 for a new employee who would be tasked with answering those questions. Officials hope to have that person hired and on the job by January.
Barb Velinsky, the city’s community projects director, said she plans to start interviewing candidates for the job soon. Once the new hire starts work, Velinsky said, it will take about six months to address the questions. The employee would then continue to work on other 311-related projects.
Among the initial tasks: figuring out which are the city’s most frequently called numbers, which questions are asked most often and who should handle different types of calls. All of that information would be entered into the 311 system’s software, if it was later purchased by the city.
Hot-line workers would know with the click of a button how long it should take to get an abandoned car moved off a street, which offices are closed for a holiday or how long is too long to have waited to get a pothole filled.
“That way we can tell our citizens what it is they can expect from us,” she said.
Once all of that work was completed, it would take several more months to set up the system, assuming the city found a way to pay for it.
City Councilman Garry Gernandt, an advocate of the 311 line, said cost is one of the biggest hurdles. He sees the hiring of someone to take a closer look at the idea as an important “positive baby step” toward a big purchase.
“I’m all for getting it up and running, and it’s long overdue in a city of our size,” he said. “But there’s a cost, I’m fully aware of that.”
Several large metro areas run 311 lines, as well as other smaller cities, ranging from Richmond, Va. to Albuquerque, N.M. Velinsky said Omaha officials plan to visit other locations that have the system, including Minneapolis.
The progress on the 311 effort comes as Omaha is beginning to offer alternatives to a phone call for reporting problems.
In August, the city unveiled a free app for smartphones and tablets that allows users to submit photos and information about problems ranging from graffiti to nonworking traffic lights. People who submit issues get progress updates and can track the issue online.
So far, the program has been downloaded about 3,500 times, and the city has received more than 800 reports. The largest number of those — 154 — were about graffiti. Other top reports included abandoned vehicles, illegally dumped garbage and problems in parks.
CitySourced, the company that runs the app, said most cities see phone requests drop by 20 to 30 percent and email requests drop by 10 to 20 percent as people shift to the new program.
A similar trend seems to be happening in Omaha.
Between May and July, before the app, the Mayor’s Hotline received 1,809 calls. From August through early November, after the app was released, the line received 1,228 calls, with an additional 805 reports by app.
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