Should Chicago Privatize 311?

by | September 23, 2015

Chicagoans requesting the removal of gang graffiti or complaining about rats in their alleys would have their calls fielded by a private company rather than the city-run 311 operation under a proposal Mayor Rahm Emanuel floated Tuesday.

His idea of privatizing the 311 call center came in his 2016 budget address, saying it would save the city "about a million dollars a year" to replace union workers with outside contractors. It was one of the few pieces of actual news Tuesday, after the mayor's administration had spent the past week dribbling out many of their financial proposals for the coming year.

The mayor later said bringing in an outside operator would save the city the cost of making much-needed upgrades to the technology at the nonemergency information center, which would cost considerably more than the operations savings.

"There's both an operating, and then there's the long-term capital," he said. "Chicago invented 311. We need about $40 (million) to $50 million to modernize it in the coming years, which we don't have. So there's an operating cost savings of $1 million, we think appropriately. There's also a capital expenditure that only a private operator can do."

City Budget Director Alex Holt said the administration will put out a request for proposals to determine whether taking that step makes sense, but suggested the level of service will be considered along with the price. "Put an RFP on the street, and let's take a look at 311 and see whether we can provide a higher level of service, either at lower cost or at the same level of cost," she said.

But Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, said he's worried about giving a contract to a company that would provide the equipment and the manpower for such an important city service. And he wondered whether there would be real savings with a private contractor if the company had to factor in the cost of making technology upgrades.

"At what cost?" Sawyer asked about Emanuel's plan. "I would rather us make the investment in the technology and then we own it rather than just handing it off to somebody."

Sawyer said that despite extensive discussion in recent weeks between members of the City Council and the Emanuel administration about the budget plan, many aldermen didn't learn about the proposal to privatize 311 until Monday night.

And the details were not spelled out in budget documents, which showed a proposed reduction of only about $237,000 on 311 services next year. It also showed the same number of employees. City budget spokeswoman Molly Poppe said only a small savings was reflected because the change would happen later in the year.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents about 50 of the 73 budgeted workers at the 311 center, and union spokesman Anders Lindall said laying them off is shortsighted.

"You need people answering those phones who know the neighborhoods, know how to deal with emergencies, know city government and how to deal with aldermen's offices," Lindall said. "This is an insignificant amount of savings that would risk a vital service and more than 50 good jobs for city residents with experience and training who help make city government work."

(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune