Help line soon to be put on hold Budget cuts sink assistance unit in Baltimore County.

January 20, 1992|By Larry Carson

The little boy on the telephone had but one plaintive question: "Will you read me a story?"

It's not the typical question that Chris Bangs, of the Citizens Assistance Unit of Baltimore County government, has fielded every day since she began the service in 1975, but it made her think.

"The library has a story [phone] line," Mrs. Bangs explained, "and I thought that's what he was trying to reach.

"It took even me five minutes to find the number, but I got him hooked up," she said with obvious satisfaction.

"Who else in county government would have known what he wanted?" Mrs. Bangs wondered aloud.

In a few more weeks or months, someone else will have to try to figure out that answer because Citizens Assistance, which handled 6,636 complaint calls from county residents in 1991, plus 30 more information calls a day, will be out of business because of budget cuts.

County Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly said the information booth in the center of the old courthouse, now manned by Tonya Williams of Citizens Assistance, will continue to be manned, although he's not sure by whom. Also, callers to the unit's offices will be referred to the county's central switchboard once the unit completely shuts down.

The cut won't have any immediate effect on the county budget, either, because all but $2,000 of the unit's $100,000 budget is for salaries, and each of the four workers will remain in county government.

vTC In announcing the cut, County Executive Roger B. Hayden explained in a news release that he is trying to "delete what is non-essential and reduce service levels . . . so we can use employees in a flexible manner and permanently eliminate vacant positions."

Mrs. Bangs, the supervisor; Helene E. Kehring, a 17-year veteran, and Ms. Williams remain at work for now, while the county personnel office is seeking other openings in county government for them. One other worker already has transferred.

The unit also has employed up to seven college students as part-time workers to handle night calls up to 10 p.m., but that, too, will be discontinued. The unit sends a written report of each complaint to the appropriate department, and then calls back each complainant to say what is being done to correct the situation. Emergencies are handled right away, however.

Mrs. Bangs and Mrs. Kehring said they have stuck so long with the same jobs because they like helping people.

Before 1975, Mrs. Bangs said, anyone with a complaint was told to file it in writing, for an answer in 30 days.

Former County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis decided to form the complaint unit as a more responsive clearinghouse for complaints and inquiries after he personally stood in line at the complaint counter one day and came away as angry and frustrated as many other taxpayers before him.

The top two complaints, according to office records, involve zoning violations and environmental or sanitation problems. A close third are complaints about rental units that may be in violation of the county's housing code. Nearly as many calls come in for building code and animal problems, followed by pothole complaints. Those five categories accounted for 6,349 of the total complaints in 1991, about 96 percent.

Answering complaints, Mrs. Bangs said, is not as simple as it might seem.

First, she and her workers must interpret what a caller really wants.

" 'I want to talk to the right-of-way department,' " Mrs. Bangs said, recounting a typical call. It turned out that the caller wanted to find out whether the site where he planned to plant a tree was in a public right-of-way.

Linking a caller to the appropriate department can get complicated. A complaint from a person angry about a missing street sign, for example, would be referred to traffic engineering. A call about a sign prohibiting ball playing might go to Recreation and Parks. And, a request for a "Burglars Beware" sign would go to the police.

Her unit's most memorable call, Mrs. Bangs said, came in 1980 when a man said he was planning to commit suicide. The Citizens Assistance worker kept the man on the phone until a police officer could get to the house. The officer prevented the suicide and found 25 guns in the man's house, she said.

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