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Aldermen rail against 311 privatization

Debra Powell and Louis Shuttlesworth, both 311 Call Center employees, called on aldermen to oppose privatizing the system. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Many Chicago aldermen stood staunchly against the privatization of the city’s 311 call center on Wednesday as the emergency management director testified that nothing is set in stone.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in his budget address last week that he’s looking into a plan to privatize the nonemergency 311 call center, which he said would save $1 million annually and would help update the call center’s technology. But that could mean the layoffs of 73 operators and five supervisors, 50 of them represented by AFSCME.

OEMC Director Gary Schenkel testified that a request for proposals for a new 311 operating system “came back extremely expensive.” He said the yearly maintenance of the system ranges from $1.7 million to $2.3 million a year. Schenkel said the call center averages 8,100 calls a day. It also averages 12,000 emails a year.

Schenkel said the 311 City Customer Service Request operating system is nearly 16 years old. He said the request for proposals for privatization can help accelerate the call center’s technology.

A button opposing privatization of the 311 Call Center is worn by employee Louis Shuttlesworth. | Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

“I think that because of the technology piece and the acceleration of technology in today’s world, there may be opportunities for companies to — I don’t want to say the word ‘lease’ — but if you can think about it in that term. If they wanted to give us CSR at a much-reduced cost . . . maybe charge us $1 million a month . . . those are opportunities that we’re trying to explore by putting out a RFP,” Schenkel said.

Schenkel said it’s important to “see what is out there.” The RFP would be submitted in 2016, he said.

“Technology moves so fast, and we have grown to have expectations,” Schenkel said. “Sixteen-year-old technology is not meeting those expectations so we’re looking for opportunities from vendors that may have a solution, and that’s why we’re putting it out for RFP, to take a look with a new set of eyes.”

But most aldermen are none too pleased.

“It’s one thing to be on the cutting edge. We don’t want to be on the bleeding edge because we’re trying to keep up with technology,” Ald. Jason Ervin (29th) said.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) advised that Schenkel update the 311 system while keeping its employees.

“I’d like to strongly suggest we save the human part of it,” Harris said.

Some of the city’s 311 operators came to City Hall on Wednesday to plead their case with aldermen.

Louis Shuttlesworth, 42, has worked at the call center for eight years. He said operators from Chicago have a better sense on how to direct callers and complaints.

“Someone who is not from Chicago, they wouldn’t know what’s available. They wouldn’t know, for example, at the intersection of Damen and Elston, that needs to be dealt with immediately. If a traffic light is out at 79th and Stony Island, that’s a major issue. Someone who doesn’t know the city, there’s no way they would know what needs to be dealt with immediately,” said Shuttlesworth, of South Shore.

Debra Powell, another veteran 311 operator, said the center’s last hire was more than eight years ago.

“It would be an advantage for them to upgrade the system. But why not upgrade it with people that are already there, that are knowledgeable and have experience using it,” said Powell, who’s worked for the center for 10 years.

She said operators are proudly from Chicago. “We cover the whole city.”