Merdon proposes a 311 call center

It would be similar to one used in city for nonemergencies


Howard County should have a 311 nonemergency call center similar to one used in Baltimore, according to Republican county executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon.

Merdon said that if he is elected, he would open a call center as part of a plan to use technology to modernize county services.

"In a lot of ways, Howard County still operates like an old farm county government," he said at a news conference at his Ellicott City campaign headquarters on U.S. 40. It is time, he said, for the growing county of more than a quarter-million people to modernize.

Merdon said that in addition to allowing a centralized, easy-to-remember way for citizens to register complaints, the system would reduce nonemergency calls to the county's 911 center, and provide the county with statistics that could help shape budget decisions. People who use the service could also track action on their complaints via computer, he said.

"The 311 service will transform the way Howard County citizens interact with our government," Merdon said in a statement. Now, he said, sometimes "citizens don't call county government because they're not sure who to call."

Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer, had no objections.

"Any way to make it easier for residents to communicate with the county is a good thing," she said.

Merdon had no cost estimates, though Baltimore -- the only Maryland jurisdiction to use the service -- pays $4.6 million annually and employs 90 people to answer the calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Elliot Schlanger, the center director. The center, which began in 1997 for nonemergency police calls, underwent a $2.5 million expansion in 2002 to cover all city services. The center handles about 1.2 million calls a year, and cut 911 center calls by 40 percent, Schlanger said. New York and Los Angeles are following Baltimore with 311 service, Merdon said.

"We rely heavily on it," said Matt Gallagher, director of the Citistat statistical tracking system in Baltimore. "It's great in terms of gauging the public's true demand for service."

Howard would start small, Merdon said, operating at first from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, with about 10 operators. The county could also hire a private firm to do the work, he said.

If elected, he would talk to executives in adjoining counties about operating one regional call center, which could cut costs, he said.

"We may not be able to support our own 311 center alone," he said.

Fred Homan, director of budget and finance in Baltimore County, said there is no discussion about changing the county's complaint system, which, like Howard's, uses a 10-digit phone number for nonemergency complaints. "Our center has always operated fine," he said, explaining that nonemergency calls come to Baltimore County's 911 center operators, but are programmed to never supplant emergency calls.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens is interested in the idea, a spokeswoman said, but won't have time to seriously explore it before she leaves office in December.

Ken Ulman, a Democrat running for county executive, said he would consider the 311 idea, but "I'd want to know the cost."

"He wants to emulate Mayor [Martin] O'Malley's Citistat," Ulman said, chuckling at the political incongruity of Merdon appearing to want to copy a program identified with O'Malley, a Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

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