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Pittsburgh's help line gets 116,000 messages

| Monday, Nov. 30, 2009

Anne Davis used it when she saw a pothole.

Two days later, the pothole was filled. So when she noticed a burned-out streetlight on her Lawrenceville street, she used it again.

"I don't think they could have been any more responsive than what they've been," Davis, 55, said about the city's 311 help line. "Whether it's cold patch in a pothole two days later, or a bulb's been replaced, I've been pretty impressed."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl launched the 311 help line in October 2006 to field complaints, questions and concerns. Since then, city workers have logged more than 116,000 calls or electronic messages sent online, according to statistics released last week. For privacy purposes, city officials would not make available the actual records or provide details about the complaints.

But the numbers show people in some neighborhoods use the line more than others, although residents' concerns generally are the same all over.

Carrick has logged the most calls with 5,201. No other neighborhood has more than 5,000 calls, but Squirrel Hill, Brookline, Lawrenceville, Homewood, Mt. Washington and Oakland topped 4,000.

Residents in Arlington Heights logged only 10 calls over the years. Allegheny Center, Northview Heights, and Glen Hazel all recorded fewer than 100 calls.

The most common calls concern potholes, snow or ice removal, abandoned cars and overgrown weeds -- no matter the neighborhood.

But some areas have more localized issues.

In pub-popular South Side, for example, 210 people have called in reports regarding graffiti and 69 had concerns over street cleaning. Shadyside residents called 36 times asking for trees to be pruned, and 27 times about snow-covered sidewalks.

In Mt. Washington, where tourists flock for stunning city views, there were 113 complaints about parking issues. Downtown, traffic and parking concerns accounted for more than 190 reports. In Esplen, illegal dumping is the fourth most common complaint.

Then there are some less common concerns.

North Side residents called eight times to discuss animal feces, and residents in several neighborhoods -- including Oakland, the Hill District, Allentown, Troy Hill, Bloomfield and Downtown -- have had problems with rat infestations. One person in Westwood placed a call that, according to operators who file the reports, concerned "raw meat."

Bernie Behn, 31, of Stanton Heights has used the service with mixed results.

To report a poorly fastened street sign about to fall off a utility pole, Behn contacted the 311 hot line through iBurgh, an iPhone application.

That was months ago. The sign, he said last week, is "still busted."

Then again, when Behn noticed overgrown grass in a field where he lets his dogs run, his fiancee called the 311 line, left a message, "and two days later, they came and mowed the lawn. I don't know if it was coincidence or if it was a scheduled cut."

In September, City Controller Michael Lamb released an audit suggesting the city should add staff and equipment to monitor how efficiently the city addresses complaints. Four full-time staff members and three part-timers work in the 311 response center, on the sixth floor of the City-County Building, Downtown. It cost $152,488 to run in 2008.

Art Victor, the mayor's director of operations, said an assistant supervisor's position for 311 is included in the proposed 2010 budget.

Lawrenceville's Davis thinks the only improvement would be to better advertise the service. She said she loves the 311 line because it allows her to help the city fix problems while helping her avoid confrontations with rule-breakers.

"I think people love to delegate those sorts of things," she said. "Who wants to get in a sticky situation with a neighbor?"

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