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After Years Of Complaints, A Baltimore City 311 Workgroup Is Due To Publish Report

Christopher Sessums/Flickr

Baltimore City is moving to correct a long established problem: slow responses to calls to its 311 system.  A council committee held a hearing Wednesday with officials from the non-emergency line and the city agencies that respond to requests for service.

“A heap of debris is in an alley and 10 to 30 days pass after calling it in, a 311 operator tells the constituent the [case] is closed, while the constituent is staring at the mound of debris from a window,” Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said before the council’s Health, Environment and Technology committee. “I would be angry, too.”

There have been many requests that would not have be completed without nudging from council members, Middleton said. 

Delays and lapses in 311 service requests are well-documented: Alate 2019 analysis from the Baltimore Sun found that the city’s response to certain 311 requests depends on what neighborhood the request is filed from.  

The analysis, which examined data from Jan. to Oct. of 2019, found that requests from Southeastern city residents to clean dirty alleys are completed within seven business days nearly 100% of the time.

But the same requests from residents across town in the Southwest were almost never resolved within the same timeframe.

The city’s 311 line receives more than 1 million calls a year, Lisa Allen, the Baltimore City IT’s director of 311, told the council. About 60% of the calls are new service requests, while 40% of them are follow ups or requests for information.

Requests to the non-emergency service are handled by different city agencies, depending on the nature of the complaint. The Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Solid Waste services those related to trash, debris and litter. The Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Community Development also respond to requests.

Multiple council members told the agencies that constituents have experienced problems at every point of the system — especially when service requests are labeled “closed” when the original issue has not been fixed, such as Middleton’s constituent with piles of trash in the alley outside their home.

The label “closed” does not mean what most constituents think it means, officials said. Agency workers label a service request “closed” if they have responded to it in some manner — not when the problem in the request is resolved.

“Closed only means something on our end. It signals to me that my inspector has been there and they've taken an action,” said Eric Booker, Deputy Commissioner for Housing Code Enforcement. “It means something to me, but absolutely nothing to the citizens.”

He suggested that the reports should instead say “action taken” and note what the action was, so that the process is more transparent.

Allen, head of 311, said she will consider Booker’s “very good suggestion.”

Officials also shared that the city has put together an interagency workgroup to study the 311’s workflow. The group first convened in February of last year, but their operations were slowed by the pandemic, Leyla Layman, chief of staff of the city Office of Information & Technology said.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said the problems discussed at the hearing have been shared publicly many times over.

“I haven't heard anything here today that I haven't heard in literally every single one of those hearings past, with the exception that there is a work group,” the Democrat said. “And that that seems to me like there is some indication of some hope of progress.”

The workgroup will submit a first report with goals and next steps by the end of April, Layman said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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