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City promises 311 non-emergency phone system by year's end ... but at what cost?

By the end of the year, if you live in Philly and have a noisy neighbor, keep hitting a treacherous pothole or can't remember when to take out the trash, you should be able to dial three little digits for help.

By the end of the year, if you live in Philly and have a noisy neighbor, keep hitting a treacherous pothole or can't remember when to take out the trash, you should be able to dial three little digits for help.

Just 3-1-1.

First implemented in Baltimore in 1996, scores of cities around the country have set up 3-1-1 nonemergency call lines in recent years.

The goal is to provide a one-stop number for residents looking for information or city services - who otherwise might tie up the 9-1-1 emergency line.

"It makes access to city government so much quicker and so much more efficient," said Philip Hampton, director of 3-1-1 in Chicago. "You don't have to know your political offices, you don't have to get to 42 different departments. You just call 3-1-1."

During his "best practices" tours, Mayor Nutter checked out 3-1-1 in New York and Chicago, among other cities. Now he has put Managing Director Camille Barnett in charge of getting a Philly 3-1-1 by the end of the year.

So far Nutter officials are vague on exactly what the system will look like - or how much it will cost - but they insist they will meet the deadline.

"We really do want to make it easy for people to get their service and get their questions answered," said Barnett.

Besides 3-1-1, Barnett will implement PhillyStat, a program that will track data from city departments and from 3-1-1 calls to assess how agencies are performing.

"This way we'll be able to demonstrate [what's happening] with actual information," Barnett said. PhillyStat meetings have begun and will be open to the public.

The basic 3-1-1 premise is simple: If you're bleeding, watching a crime being committed or in another emergency, call 9-1-1. Otherwise call 3-1-1.

Operators at a 3-1-1 call center provide city information - like your recycling day or the hours you can get a marriage license. They'll also take service requests for problems like abandoned cars, trash-strewn lots or potholes.

If you have a more complex need, like a social-services problem, perhaps, an operator might forward you to the appropriate agency. But 3-1-1 should be your first stop for most city-related needs.

"They don't have to figure out who to call," said Barnett. "I saw a list of handy numbers for city services and it was [the size of] a phone book."

Callers who request services on 3-1-1 then get a tracking number so they can check the status of the job on the phone or online.

Using 3-1-1 frees up 9-1-1 for true emergencies. Becky Jo Glover, assistant director of Miami-Dade 3-1-1, said Miami has seen a 20 percent reduction in police calls. New York has had two million fewer 9-1-1 calls since starting 3-1-1 in 2003.

Having a second number in addition to 9-1-1 is also helpful during disasters. Callers flooded the Minneapolis 3-1-1 after the I-35W bridge collapse last summer.

"It was after 6 o'clock at night and a lot of the city offices were closed," said Donald Stickney, assistant director of Minneapolis 3-1-1, which began in 2006.

City Councilman Jim Kenney has been a 3-1-1 advocate for years, but the Street administration balked at the cost.

It will likely cost a bundle to get the system up and running. In other cities, 3-1-1 call takers work on computers equipped with high-tech software that allows them to find data or make service requests.

Stickney referred to one call-center tool as "Google on steroids."

Besides the technology, a 3-1-1 center requires a physical space and trained call-takers. Barnett estimated that there were roughly 100 people currently on the city payroll doing call intake jobs who could perhaps be moved over to 3-1-1.

Both Barnett and Nutter declined to estimate the start-up costs. But New York spent $25 million to get started, Chicago $13 million, Miami $15 million and Minneapolis $6.2 million.

All those cities have substantial operating budgets as well.

Nutter's five-year plan allocates just $2 million annually for both 3-1-1 and PhillyStat.

Nutter said he is hoping to get more money from the state or federal government for the project. He also said that he has been pursuing private funding sources.

"I started having conversations about 3-1-1 [with private entities] last fall," Nutter said.

Nutter would not say who he had spoken to.

Barnett said the city is currently designing a 3-1-1 system and being consulted on what it should look like. She also stressed that it will likely roll out in stages.

"I know enough about implementing systems to know it doesn't happen all at once," she said.

While the mission is similar, 3-1-1 can look different in different cities.

In Chicago, for example, more than half of the calls are transferred to other agencies, making the 3-1-1 line more of a clearing house. In Miami, they try to resolve all calls with the operator and transfer less than 10 percent.

In New York and Chicago, the 3-1-1 lines are available 24 hours, whereas in Minneapolis, the line is available from 7 a.m to 11 p.m. And the amount of online access varies by city.

Of course, many 3-1-1 operations build up over time. New York has continued to enhance 3-1-1, increasing the number of calls the operators can resolve and adding more services. Most recently a city hunger hot line was rolled into 3-1-1.

Some cities have 3-1-1 request centers in City Council offices for people who can't easily make requests from home. Barnett said that she wants a Philly system to be accessible even if you don't have a phone or a computer.

"We want it to be high-tech, but we also want it to be high-touch," Barnett said.