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When City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz arrived in Evanston in the summer of 2009, 3-1-1 was on his mind – a central call center where all non-emergency City questions and problems could be addressed. His goal, he said at a meeting with businesses in the RoundTable’s building, was to unveil the call center on March 1, 2011 – 3/1/11.

Joe McRae, assistant to the City Manager, said he has spent nearly a year working to make the call center’s opening coincide with that date. An intense training period for the 12 phone answerers/problem-solvers began this week, he said.

The set-up has been difficult, apparently, to make the execution easy: beginning on March 1, almost anyone within Evanston’s City limits can call 311 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily “and a live person will answer the phone,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. The person who answers the call will be responsible for obtaining an answer to the question or a solution to the problem, Mr. McRae said. Each caller will be given a transaction number, and whoever takes the call will be accountable for seeing the problem through, Mr. McRae said.

At a special City Council meeting on Jan. 31, aldermen approved nearly 140 service-level agreements (SLAs) that would be the standards for handling these non-emergency calls: how long it should take for a 311 call-desk operator to get results on a request for, as examples, a report of a violation of the leaf-blower ordinance, a request for a new garbage cart, a request for removal of graffiti.

“If it’s a burning house, call 911; if it’s a burning question, call 311,” said Sue Pontarelli of the Evanston Police Department as she and Mr. McRae went over the SLAs with the Council.

There are a few caveats, though, Mr. McRae said: The system works for non-emergencies only. Emergency calls will still be handled through the 911 center.

While many cell-phone and land-line services have signed on to being part of the call system, a few have not. Subscribers to AT&T U-Verse and, at least initially, U.S. Cellular, will have to dial a longer number: 847-448-4311, Mr. McRae said. He added, though, that he is trying to persuade U.S. Cellular to sign on to the City’s 311 call system. He also said that AT&T made a call center accessible to U-Verse customers in another city and he has requested the company to make a similar accommodation for its Evanston customers.

During citizen comment, Junad Rizki and Kevin O’Connor spoke in opposition to the call center, even though expenditures for establishing it and operating it for a year – about $683,000 – had already been approved in the budget for fiscal year 2011.

“Why can’t City staffers now be accountable for the calls they handle?” Mr. O’Connor asked. “Why do we need another layer of bureaucracy? Why are they union employees when our pension debts [are so great]? Is this really the way we want to prioritize spending money we do not have?”

Mr. Rizki said, “Weaker cities [than Evanston] have made cuts. Without the cuts and the fund transfers [made by the City in the past few years] our property taxes would have increased [a lot more].”

Through the end of the month, questions about the new non-emergency call system may be referred to Mr. McRae at the City Manager’s office. After that, it’s 311.