On Your Side: City hires dozens of seasonal workers as 311 calls multiply

On Your Side: City hires dozens of seasonal workers as 311 calls multiply
(Source: Lydia Hu/WBRC)
(Source: Lydia Hu/WBRC)
(Source: Lydia Hu/WBRC)
(Source: Lydia Hu/WBRC)

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - On a humid afternoon in South Titusville, Vermon Kimble and his relatives hustle to finish trimming weeds before an afternoon storm interrupts progress.

"I just have to stay over here and keep my little lot clean, but of course a lot of bugs and stuff that travel from over there, so we have to put down extra pesticides," said Kimble about the vacant lot immediately next door.

Waist high grass and weeds cover the ground peppered with litter and debris.  A pile of trash sits on the corner.

Kimble says he calls 3-1-1 and requests that the city cut the lot, but he wonders whether his requests are taken seriously.

His and thousands of other calls are routed to Birmingham's 3-1-1 call center.  It's staffed by 8 people with the Department of Information Management Services (IMS).  Over the past couple of years, call volumes have increased.

There were more than 27,000 calls in 2015; about 37,000 calls in 2016; and this year, they are on track for more than 40,000 calls.

"It varies a lot, but the trend is going up," said Sri Karra, Chief Information Officer and Director of IMS.  He oversees the call center.  The office tracks not only the number of calls, but also when city departments resolve a request.  Although the 3-1-1 call center records and tracks the requests, it does not resolve issues.  Instead, 3-1-1 is an intermediary between the caller and the various city departments.

Records show that as the number of calls increases, the rate of monthly resolution decreases.

There were about 3,700 calls in progress in October and that month showed a resolution rate around 50 percent.  By January, calls in progress increased to more than 4,000 and the resolution rate dropped to about 43 percent.  In May, calls in progress jumped to nearly 6,000; the resolution rate dropped was about 38 percent.  And, in June, more than 7,200 calls were in progress and the resolution rate was just under 30 percent.

Requests vary, from pothole problems to missed trash pickup.  Most common are requests for information, like directions to a city office or dates and times of public meetings.  Of all call types, requests about vacant overgrown lots increase the most during the warmer months.  There were 346 calls about overgrown vacant lots in April; 585 calls in May; and, 745 calls in June.

"If it were up to the mayor and if it were up to all of us, every lot would be cut today, but it doesn't work that way," said Don Lupo, Mayor's Office of Citizen's Assistance.

After a 3-1-1 request about an overgrown lot is received, it must be approved by the city council for mowing.  Lupo says that alone can take weeks.

Other requests are resolved as quickly as possible by various city agencies.  The target date for pothole repairs is 10 days, brush pick up is about 2.5 weeks, and animal control is 3 days.

"Honestly, I just have to keep worrying about cutting over here because that might take another month," Kimble said about maintaining his own yard.

And he's right that it could take another month before the department of public works can cut the vacant lot.  Public records show that requests that a vacant lot be cut are generally scheduled for resolution about 6 weeks after the call date.

The city has hired around 70 seasonal workers this year to help the department respond more quickly to requests about overgrown lots during the summer months.

"A lot of people think that it takes too long," says Lupo.

And Kimble agrees. "We're trying to keep our city looking good," he said.

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