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311 not cost prohibitive: report

Getting your questions answered about municipal services might soon be as easy as dialling 311.

During Monday night's council meeting, councillors will look at the possibility of making a change so that the municipality's general service line can be reached by dialling 311 instead of the current 519-360-1998 number.

311 is a universal non-emergency phone number used across North America that residents can call to get information on municipal services, make complaints or report problems such as road damage. Currently, 18 cities in Canada use it including Windsor, Toronto, and Waterloo.

The move in Chatham-Kent was initiated by Ward 6 Councillor Karen Kirkwood-Whyte. In March, Kirkwood-Whyte brought up a motion requesting that staff prepare a report looking at the feasibility and financial implications of switching the number. Her idea was that it would be a quicker, easier way for residents to get in touch with the municipality. She also brought up the point that many other communities use 311 with great success.

Now that a report has been completed, it appears that the change will be a fairly smooth and cost-efficient one.

"Fundamentally, nothing would change in terms of the actual services provided by our customer service team," the report states. "If Chatham-Kent proceeds with this option, the Chatham-Kent customer would call 311 which is simply forwarded to 519-360-1998 and directly routed to the customer service team."

The new 311 number would not replace the current number, but rather, act as an additional option for anyone looking to get in touch with the municipality's customer service line. The hours of operation would remain the same and current options for after-hour emergencies would also continue.

Kirkwood-Whyte said she's very happy to see all the work that went into the report in addition to the results.

"Given the fact that Chatham-Kent is very highly equipped in terms of call centre processes, infrastructure and the training, to implement the 311 number, nothing's really going to change in terms of the actual service provided by the customer service team," she said.

Since the creation of the municipality's basic call centre switchboard in 1998, Chatham-Kent's municipal phone line has been recognized as one of the most progressive in the province including the "groundbreaking" introduction of customer service agents in 2001. In 2015, the University of Western Ontario wrote an extensive research paper CK's call centre enhancements, which included new call centre software and an option for web chat.

In 2005, council approved a similar motion to look at the possibility of a 311 style phone number that would reroute to customer service representatives. However, the concept did not progress due to the cost of technical infrastructure at around $1 million.

Because Chatham-Kent's telephone boundaries extend into six neighbouring municipalities, written consent must be given from all surround municipalities before CK proceeds with routing in 311 services. If this is obtained, then the main associated cost would be staff time. If consent is not given, Chatham-Kent would have to change telephone routing methods. The report does not state the cost of this process, but describes it as "labour intensive."

Kirkwood-Whyte said assuming things go well with all the nearby municipalities, she was excited to learn how inexpensive the change would be.

"The other thing that I'm really happy to hear is that in addition to the fact that it's a really easy to remember option for customers, there's relatively no cost now that we have the technology in place," she said. "If we had tried to do this maybe a decade ago it would have been very costly but there's little to no cost."

Another small cost would be promotional tools created to educate the public on the use of and the differences between 911, 311, and 211. Marketing tools would include brochures, social media campaigns, and signage. According to the report, the marketing aspect would come with a relatively small price tag.

"The combined estimated costs of such promotional material and advertisements is not known at this time but is not anticipated to be cost prohibitive," the report read.

Kirkwood-Whyte told Blackburn News that she plans to pull the report from the agenda on Monday and instead introduce a motion to proceed with the change. Should council vote in favour of introducing 311, it would take up to 18 months to implement it.

The municipality is also in the process of exploring additional ways to access information including an option to text instead of call and the introduction of a smartphone app.

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