Number of Muni-Related 311 Calls Going Down, Down, Down -- But Service Is Still Billing Muni Same Amount ... For Now

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Jim Herd
When it was disclosed in April that the 311 call center was charging the transit system millions of dollars for those "When's the next 38 Geary? I'm Cold!" calls, Muni boss Nat Ford pledged to begin pushing riders to begin calling the state-funded 511 line instead of the (Muni-funded) 311.

Data obtained via by SF Weekly via a trio of public records requests -- to 311, 511, and Muni -- indicates that this is exactly what has happened. Muni-related 311 calls are way down while Muni-related 511 calls are up. And yet this hasn't yet saved Muni a cent on its 311 payments.

Why is this? To start with, it's a misconception that, every time someone calls 311 regarding a Muni matter, the operator pulls on a crank and another $1.96 is added to Muni's tab. In actuality, says Muni spokesman Judson True, the much tossed-about figure of $1.96 per call was created by dividing the "work order" amount Muni had already agreed to pay 311 by the number of calls; it's just an average. For fiscal year 2009-10, Muni has agreed to pay 311 $6.387 million. That won't be reduced by $1.96 if you call 311 one time fewer. But if more and more people begin calling 511 and fewer and fewer dial 311 -- as is happening -- Muni will save money. Just not right away.

And, make no mistake about it, the number of Muni-related calls to 311 has dropped off precipitously. In February, March, and April of this year, the tally was 221,976; 233,185; and 224,100. Yet in May, June, and July -- after the revelation that this service was costing Muni money -- the totals were 207,140; 182,478; and 161,268.

Meanwhile, the 511 numbers went up -- marginally. The number of Muni departure requests jumped 37 percent between April and June (albeit from 19,457 to 26,745). The number of people using Nextbus.com data has also likely skyrocketed.

So while it isn't as simple as Muni saving a buck ninety-six every time you or I abstain from dialing 311, if the current trends continue, Muni figures to be hammering out less costly work orders in the future. It's no coincidence Muni has placed the 511-friendly stop ID numbers on all its new shelters and is looking to do the same on poles.

It's not as satisfying as knowing that my daily call to 511 instead of 311 has tangibly saved Muni the price of a slice of cheese pizza, but one must take comfort that this small sacrifice by riders will save the system some cash in the future -- some time. At least that's what we'll have to tell ourselves when the robot voice at the end of the line on 511 can't differentiate the words "Powell" and "Carl."

Photo   |   Jim Herd

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