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The New York City hotline, 3-1-1, has been in service for five years, and the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) has issued a report grading the system and its progress.
Use of the system has increased from 1.2 million calls in fiscal 2003 (July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003) to about 15 million in 2006 and held at that level in 2007, the study said.
Despite a few hiccups early on, when the idea of using the system became ingrained, the target of having 90 percent of calls answered within 30 seconds is being met, according to the report.
The 3-1-1 line was not the brainchild of Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he announced a plan to create the system in January of 2002 - the concept stemmed from the Clinton administration in the late 1990s as a way of reducing the burden on the 9-1-1 emergency system.
Although Baltimore and Chicago had these non-emergency complaint lines before New York, Bloomberg, who made much of his fortune in the information technology business, embraced it as no other mayor did. Today, New York’s system is the largest and most comprehensive in the country.
Even though the Federal Communication has reserved 2-1-1 for social service inquires, rather than set up yet another system, Bloomberg opted to make 3-1-1 the universal number for non-emergency contact with city agencies, whether to complain or for help.
The system replaced help lines at over 40 city agencies with a single staff having access to a knowledge data base with over 7,000 pieces of information about city services and other related organizations.
The program hasn’t been cheap, according to the report.
From a first-year operating budget of $16.9 million and staff of 193, the current operating budget calls for $57.6 million and calls for a staff of 544 to run the system.
In capital expenses, the money for the “nuts-and-bolts” part, the city has already committed a hefty $39.5 million, planned for $8 million in the coming year, and is projecting they will spend close to a whopping $80 million, between 2009 and 2011, according to the report.
Future plans include giving people a way to send photo or even video records to the system, and further improve reporting to the mayor’s office, City Council and local Community Boards.
City officials, not surprisingly, urge us at every opportunity to take advantage of the system for everything from making a noise complaint (the most frequent call, at almost 375,000 last year) to getting help to quit smoking.
If you do make a complaint, remember to get and keep a complaint number. The numbers are a permanent record, and help both the complainant and the city keep track of performance.

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