Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Solano311 provides the answers

Solano311 provides the answers
New county call center in slightly rocky debut
By SARAH ROHRS/Times-Herald staff writer
Article Launched: 09/03/2008

ALVIN GUILLERMO handles calls to the new 311 center at the Solano County Government Center on Tuesday. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald)

FAIRFIELD - If you had a question about your tax bill, marriage license or polling place Tuesday, you may have been surprised when your call went to an operator rather than a county staff person.

The Solano311 service went live Tuesday as operators took calls for the county tax recorder, clerk and elections department.

Callers can also dial 3-1-1 directly from most cell phones and land lines. The service is free.

Callers outside of Solano County can reach the service by calling (707) 784-3111.

The Solano311 call center's first day was a bit rocky. Some callers got left on hold too long to reach an operator, or to get the information they needed, a top official said.

"We're having some 'learning curve' issues and start-up jitters. I think things people thought they knew, they didn't know," said Ira Rosenthal, director of the department of information technology.

County officials and operators from Affiliated Computer Services, the contractor providing the 311 service, hope to cut down on hold times and to smooth out other wrinkles, Rosenthal said.

Solano311 operators will answer calls from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. At peak times, 10 operators and five supervisors will be on hand, said ACS senior manager Pam Owens. Four or five operators will be available on weekends.

County supervisors gave the call center a ringing endorsement in February, though Vallejo Supervisor Barbara Kondylis voted against it, calling the service expensive and unnecessary.

The general fund financed a $1.5 million loan to cover start-up costs. Annual operating costs will be recovered through fees charged to each department, according to the county.

For now, callers with questions for the county tax collector-treasurer, the county clerk, assessor-recorder, or the elections department go directly to the call center.

Rosenthal said more departments, such as general services, parks and county administration, may have their calls forwarded directly to the call center in the future. The county is not eliminating direct phone lines for specific staff members, he said.

Phone calls are being recorded for a quality control supervisor to review, Rosenthal said.

For the last eight months, a team from ACS worked with county employees to build a database of questions and answers.

If operators can't find the information they need in the database, callers are transferred to a staff member in the appropriate department, said ACS project manager Cameron Clifford.

"Our goal is to transfer as few calls as possible," Owens said. When callers are transferred, operators stay on the line to ensure the caller has reached the right person, she said.

County Administrator Michael Johnson said, in a written announcement, the call center "is the single most important advancement we can make in customer service. We have quality employees, outstanding programs and 311 makes it more efficient for us to serve the county residents."

But Kondylis said 311 adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. She said most callers are trying to reach someone in the health and social services department which uses another calling system, 211.

"It's a waste of time and money," Kondylis said. "It puts another layer between the callers and the county."

Meanwhile, Rosenthal said many callers must try different departments repeatedly before they reach the right one. By calling 311, the county is helping take the guess work out of knowing who or what department to call, he said.

County staff members also trained 311 operators on how to initiate service requests on such things as how to get a copy of a marriage license.

Citizens can also access 311 resources through the county Web site at

• E-mail Sarah Rohrs at or call 553-6832.