Council contemplating how to deal with costly 311 calls

EDMONTON – Councillors called for action Thursday after discovering that each person calling the 311 information line dings the city for nearly $5.

“I have stopped calling 311 now. I used to call often to get information for transit or rec facilities. Once I learned the cost, I just (went) to the website,” Coun. Amarjeet Sohi said.

“What can we do to encourage (people) to use other venues than 311? … Bus fare costs three bucks, but to find out when the bus arrives costs $5 to taxpayers.”

The increasingly popular telephone line will handle about two million calls this year, and a report indicates the average price of dealing with each customer is $4.94.

The issue came up during opening discussions of the $1.8-billion budget for city operations and services, following unanimous approval of the three-year, $2.8-billion capital construction and equipment budget.

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Edmonton was among the first Canadian centres to introduce 311 service, providing a single number for people to telephone to request municipal services and information.

At the time officials projected the 24-hour service would eventually save $1 million annually by eliminating positions, although the city admits staffing data isn’t available to determine whether this occurred.

There was a flood of complaints in 2009 about delays of up to half an hour to reach a service one councillor described as a “disaster.”

Dozens of employees were hired to reduce problems stemming from receiving more calls than expected and calls lasting nearly twice as long as planned for.

But a proposed reduction in the $10-million 2012 budget would eliminate plans to take on an extra 12 operators, an increase intended to prevent wait times from jumping to one minute from the current 28 seconds.

The goal is 25 seconds.

Corporate services general manager David Edey said similar operations in other municipalities cost $4 to $10 a call, although this figure is hard to measure because each area accounts for expenses differently.

“Talking to people one-on-one costs money. A website costs money too, but it’s a much cheaper alternative … (and) it isn’t a dialogue trying to solve more complex problems.”

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Public requests for information are on the rise, so if 311 hadn’t been set up, the city would have needed to hire additional staff anyway to run the phones in individual departments, Edey said.

“I used to have a drawer full of bus maps. Now I go to the web or call 311.”

However, Mayor Stephen Mandel wants a written explanation of why the system costs so much.

“I think it’s absolutely out of control. When Councillor Sohi told me it was $5, I thought he was kidding,” Mandel said.

“I just think from the beginning this has been misrepresented to us in some form. I’m not saying it was done on purpose. What was supposed to be self-funding has become horrendous.”

But Coun. Karen Leibovici said 311 wait times aren’t so bad compared to other organizations.

“This morning I waited 45 seconds. I called Air Canada the other night and waited 45 minutes and still no one came on the line,” she said.

“The reality is, I think, if you’re going from 30 seconds to 45 seconds or a minute, probably in this day and age, that’s acceptable.”

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