Jan 12, 2012 -- For years, 311 has been advertised as the way for Los Angeles residents to request service and file complaints with one call to City Hall.
Now, it's a victim of its own success - and budget cuts.
Four years ago, the system had 50 operators for 1.4 million calls. This year, 311 has half as many operators to answer an estimated 1.2 million calls.
The result is a system increasingly overwhelmed with calls and that crashes when operators are unavailable to answer.
Callers have noticed. Charlton Pettus of Sherman Oaks said he felt like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole recently when he tried to call the city to report a traffic problem.
"During the holidays, there was no traffic in my neighborhood," Pettus said. "Then this past Monday, on the first day of school, there were crews out fixing the streets and creating gridlock."
Pettus called the 311 system to complain. First, he was put on hold. Then the call was suddenly disconnected. He called back and was told all the lines were busy.
"So much for 311," Pettus said. "And we wonder why Los Angeles is going down the toilet?"
Officials with the Information Technology Agency, which manages 311, have heard the complaints.
"It can be a problem, particularly after a busy weekend," said Mark Wolf, ITA executive officer. "Some Mondays can be real busy."
Wolf estimated more than 1.2 million calls will be answered this year by its 22 weekday and five to seven weekend operators. Four years ago, it had a staff of 50 operators who were able to answer 1.4 million calls.
The system, launched in 2003 under former Mayor James Hahn, began as a 24-7 operation. Budget cuts over the years have reduced its hours of operation to 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. every day of the week.
Officials estimated the average wait on calls is two minutes, but can be longer during peak periods.
"With other cuts in the city, people have been calling us," Wolf said. "Citizens find it easier to report through us because we know the departments."
The budget for the 311 system is $2.7 million, a reduction this past year of more than $467,000, resulting in the elimination of the swing shift.
The calls are for a variety of complaints, from potholes to downed trees and uncollected trash and graffiti.
Alice Goff, president of AFSCME Local 3090 that represents the operators, said the cuts have been difficult on the remaining operators.
"Sometimes there are so many calls, the system crashes," Goff said. "That's simply because there are not enough people. And a lot of calls which used to come in at night are just not being made. So, you end up with a problem that is not resolved or an overload of calls the next day."
Councilman Richard Alarcon, who chairs the City Council's Information Technology and General Services Committee, said he considers the 311 system one of the most important city services.
"The fact that so many people use it is good news," Alarcon said.
"But the system has been a victim of budget cuts, so we have to look at ways we can use technology to make it available 24 hours a day."
Alarcon said he met in San Jose recently with several high-tech firms on some of the developing technology.
"There are a lot of promising things out there, but we have to figure out which is best and how we pay for it," Alarcon said.
Wolf said the whole world of telephone technology is undergoing dramatic change, with a number of services already available and in use by agencies such as Social Security and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
One of the top technologies is known as virtual hold, where callers can leave their phone number and receive a call back.
"It prevents the frustration level of people from being on hold 20 or 30 minutes," Wolf said.
Another possibility is an advanced voice recognition system in which people speak their problem and the computers recognize where the call should be directed.
"At the DMV, once you call and give your name and car license, the system is able to pull up your file and recognize generally what the call is about," Wolf said.
Integrating the 311 network into mobile applications also is being examined.
The offices of Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Paul Krekorian now use mobile apps for constituents to email in photos of problems they have.
Garcetti spokeswoman Julie Wong said they receive 200-250 mobile complaints a month, with most of them dealing with bulky item trash pickups.
"We get some about trees or poles down and it spikes if we are doing an event emphasizing the program," Wong said.
Krekorian's office said it has received a variety of complaints for graffiti removal, bulky item pickups and trash removal.
"We find it is valuable for people even if they use it as a different communication option," spokesman Jeremy Oberstein said. "They use the app as they would through email, Twitter or Facebook.
"People who may not have got in touch with us before can do so now because of the app."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent