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To put meat in public complaints, city plans 311 line for airing beefs

Have a beef with Buffalo city government? You soon will be able to dial 311 to reach what officials describe as an improved problem-resolution system.

The city call center that handled more than 85,000 inquiries last year is getting a makeover, including a quick-to-dial phone number and a software system that will let people track their cases on the Internet as they move through various city divisions.

The overhaul of Buffalo's Office of Citizens Services even might include expanded calling hours so fewer people end up talking to answering machines. The division director likely will seek funding in the new budget to hire several additional staffers. But first, he will have to prove to city number-crunchers that the additional spending will improve service or save money.

The plans are part of what Mayor Byron W. Brown calls an effort to provide a "quality of service that is second to none" in the state, even across the nation.

Calls to the hotline increased by more than 21,000 last year from 2005. Even when taking into account those related to the devastating October storm, Citizen Services Director Oswaldo Mestre said calls still were up by more than 5,000. The complaints range from housing violations and tree problems, to garbage pickup issues, requests for new totes and questions about user fees.

By early this summer, Mestre says, he hopes Buffalo will become one of only a few cities in the state using a 311 calling system to process non-emergency complaints.

By dialing the three digits, callers automatically will reach the hotline. The number not only will be easier for people to remember, but also will accompany other division upgrades.

Mestre said changing the way the city tracks complaint calls will create a faster, more efficient and more "transparent" system.

"People will be able to go on the Web and see how their [case] is being processed," he said. "They'll be able to track it as it moves through the system."

The overhaul will include steps aimed at holding city departments that handle various services more accountable for resolving complaints.

The division also plans to upgrade some antiquated computer equipment and expand the size of its second-floor City Hall office as it takes on some new tasks.

One activity will involve Brown's desire to get the unit more involved in promoting volunteerism, Mestre said. Through outreach efforts and other activities, city employees will work to encourage more residents to get involved in neighborhood cleanups and other community activities.

Upgrading the division likely will cost tens of thousands of dollars, Mestre said. The administration hopes the state control board that oversees city finances will release state efficiency grants to pay for the improvements.

Residents now reach Buffalo's hotline by calling 851-4890. Mestre said the new 311 system will be promoted in an upcoming awareness blitz that will include billboards.

New York City and Rochester already use 311 systems.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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