City complaint line lags

Despite Menino's vow, a system to track citizen calls is still years away

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / April 6, 2008

When Boston officials rolled out their ambitious plans for a citizen complaint tracking system like the ones that are commonplace in cities across the country, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced, "The city's changing, and my administration has to change, too."

Nearly two years later, the administration has not changed much, leaving Boston far behind other cities such as New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and even Somerville and Hartford - and leaving untold numbers of citizen complaints by the wayside.

City officials have spent $2 million. They've hired outside consultants. They've bought furniture and telephones for a complaint call center in City Hall, and painted the room a pale shade of blue. But senior officials say it could be nearly two more years and $2 million more before the administration has a citywide system to keep track of residents' complaints about everything from burned out street lights to missed trash pickups.

"We're taking one step at a time," said Bill Oates, the city's chief information officer. "We're not going to solve the problem overnight."

Oates said a pilot tracking program may be in place by 2009. He said it could be 2010 before a full-fledged system is up and running and callers get tracking numbers so they can follow their complaints through the city's bureaucracy, much like a FedEx package can be tracked online.

In the meantime, the city has no idea how many reports about municipal nuisances - from abandoned cars to unplowed streets - are slipping through the cracks.

The Globe conducted an informal survey of 50 residents who called City Hall this year and found a hit-or-miss operation in which some callers were pleased with a rapid-fire response, while others were infuriated because they got no response at all. In all, 21 residents said their complaints and requests were addressed after one call, 24 said they had to make multiple calls to get action, and five others said their concerns have yet to be addressed.

"The city should be embarrassed by their lack of action, care, and willingness to follow up with citizens," said one caller, Susan Lombardi-Verticelli, a Mission Hill resident who repeatedly telephoned about missed trash and recycling pickups.

After learning about the results of the Globe survey, Menino assigned a high-level adviser to implement better follow-up on constituent complaints. Menino, who has prided himself since he took office on his "urban mechanic" reputation, said he plans to hold weekly meetings with department heads to make sure every complaint is addressed.

"I was angry when I heard about this," the mayor said. "To me the most important thing is when a person calls City Hall, there should be an answer to their question; we have to get back to them."

In other cities - small, medium, and large - the installation of complaint-tracking systems significantly improved constituent services.

In Hartford, for example, officials say they now have a first-call resolution rate of 96 percent since they began tracking complaints in July 2006. It took two years to get the system up and running. It now handles about 8,000 calls per month.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented call tracking on a central hot line in 2003. It took 13 months and $20 million to install, said Nick Sbordone, New York's 311 spokesman. A staff of roughly 600 answers, on average, 40,000 calls a day, and the city has expanded its hot line to provide health services, such as the distribution of nicotine patches to help residents quit smoking.

"The most important thing was the mayor's leadership on the project," Sbordone said. "He came in and said we need to make government more accessible to the people it serves."

A similar edict from Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville spurred a complaint-tracking system in that city in December 2005. It took seven months to set up and now handles about 1,600 calls per week, Somerville officials said.

Oates, defending Boston's three-to-five year timeline for installation of its tracking program, said that the city is following the advice of outside consultants and that Toronto and San Francisco took a similar amount of time. When the city announced it was installing a system in August 2006, officials said it would be complete by December that year.

The mayor's 24-hour hot line - 617-635-4500 - employs 14 operators. City officials said the city has not adopted a simpler 311 number as many other cities have done because the seven-digit number has been in place for decades, and they don't want to change it.

City officials said the hot line fields about 450 calls each day, 80 percent of which are never documented because they are requests to be transferred to other departments or requests for information such as the times that city offices are open or parking logistics for events.

The remaining calls, about 90 each day, are logged as reports or complaints and forwarded in e-mails to city workers in the appropriate departments.

A complaint about potholes, for example, is e-mailed to Department of Public Works employees, who are then supposed to go out and patch the holes. But the city has no way of knowing whether the departments followed up on the complaints unless a resident calls back to say so.

"Being able to close the loop on the back end, we don't have that right now," said Janine Coppola, director of the mayor's hot line.

Oates said that once new software is purchased and installed, hot line operators will be able to see what happened with callers' complaints by typing the tracking numbers into their computers.

The city will also be able to run reports showing how many complaints are unresolved each day, so they can follow up and make sure they are addressed - before constituents get frustrated and call back. The hot line documented 5,585 calls between Jan. 1 and March 20, according to logs obtained by The Globe through a public records request.

A majority, or 4,941 of the calls, were complaints about basic services, such as missed trash pickups, malfunctioning traffic signals, and potholes. The others were a mixture of requests, such as for certain types of street lights in a neighborhood, and opinions such as support or anger for the mayor's stance on issues.

In the Globe survey, the 21 residents who said city workers fixed their problems after a single call had reported issues in 11 different neighborhoods, from the North End to Roslindale. One East Boston resident said workers showed up within minutes Jan. 13 after she called to report a couch abandoned at an intersection. A Dorchester resident reported an abandoned car on Jan. 17, and the city towed it within days. A pothole on Shawmut Avenue in the South End was also filled within days of a February request.

"Just in general, with potholes, brick sidewalks, I've had good results with all that stuff," said Thomas Dooley, a Beacon Hill resident who called to report burned out street lights on Feb. 9.

"I find that when I call the mayor's hot line things get resolved very quickly," said Jim Hinsman, a Jamaica Plain resident who called to report graffiti on a mailbox near his house.

Those who had to call back multiple times were not as happy about their hot line experience.

A Dorchester resident said he called three times over 10 days in March before workers replaced bulbs in three streetlights by his home. Another Dorchester resident called twice in January to report that tree branches were breaking and dangerously close to a power wire, a hazard that still has not been addressed.

A Jamaica Plain resident called the hot line Jan. 7 and again Feb. 16 to report graffiti. She was so frustrated by the city's sluggish response that she bought her own spray paints - blue, green, and gray - to try and cover the offensive markings herself.

The hot line "absolutely needs some improvements," said another resident, Arleen Frechette, who reported city planters were overturned in her section of Dorchester. "After three calls, I finally got some response."

As for Lombardi-Verticelli, the Mission Hill resident, she called the hot line Jan. 4 to report that city workers had not picked up recycling for a week. It was her third call on the issue, she said. After two earlier calls, on Dec. 28, workers in a trash truck that had been idling at the end of her street for 30 minutes came and picked up the recycling and put it in with the trash, she said.

"I called City Hall and told them, and they said: 'Um, uh, uh, OK. What do you want us to do?' " Lombardi-Verticelli said. "I said I want someone to call me back, and they said, 'Who?' I said, well, I'll take Tommy Menino if he's available. But he did not call me back. In fact, no one called me back."

Globe correspondents Sarah Gantz and Daniel M Peleschuk contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at

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