3-1-1 can’t come soon enough

Full disclosure: I have had to do business with the city and it sucks.

I read with some interest this morning the piece in the Daily News about the Nutter administration’s recent dust-up over consultants for the city’s 3-1-1 system. To sum up, apparently some well-intentioned if misguided member of the managing director’s office decided to hire a company that has already been working on the call center to additional consulting work without putting the contract out to bid.

That, my friends, is a big no-no in Nutterland where the hyphenated adjective “no-bid” is apparently as welcome as toe fungus. Anyway, without getting into the “who knew what and when did they know it” aspect of the story, the mayor’s office has decided to put the contract out to bid.

Hopefully the appropriate consultant will be chosen soon so we can get this 3-1-1 thing up and running.

Alas, it may be too late for me, however.

Since my wife and I are leaving our (her) little cottage in Bella Vista slightly bigger digs in Passyunk Square, we’ve decided to rent the BV house in an attempt to cover its expenses until we eventually sell or die and leave it to our heirs (who are currently two orange cats). At the advice of our realtor, we’ve decided to do this above the table and secure all of the proper licenses and permits.

Without getting into too many details, that process involves getting a business tax account number from Revenue, a Business Privilege License ($250) from L&I, and a housing rental license from L&I, as well as some landlord cooperation agreement with PGW.

Step 1 required two different phone calls and included hold times of up to 17 minutes. After one such lengthy hold, during which I was subject to a MIDI version of Mozart on a loop, I was abruptly cut off. Having gotten advice on how to fill out the form – not quite as self-explanatory as they think it is – I was unable to fax it because the number didn’t work. The kind – though phlegmatically challenged – woman on the other end of the phone gave me another fax number which was nowhere to be found on any website or form. After faxing the form, we waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, 4 weeks later, we received a hand-written envelope from Revenue with a single sheet – a copy of the faxed application – on which was hand written our tax account number. Having been written on a shaded area of the fax before it was copied, we could barely make out the number.

Step 2 is currently underway after a separate phone call to L&I to chase down an invoice for the $250 fee for the Business Privilege License. To their credit, L&I’s hold time was much shorter and the invoice was faxed to me by the end of the business day on which I made the call.

My point in telling this story is that there may be a lot more work that needs to be done than just giving one 3-digit number by which to make these calls. Why are the memories of city fax machines full as was the explanation for the first inoperable fax number? Why are forms sent back with no cover letters or further explanations? Why are envelopes and important details like account numbers hand written?

3-1-1 may be a convenient way to report a pothole or a non-emergency crime (like bike theft… grrrrr), but without cleaning up and reorganizing the back end of process like license, account number and permit acquisition, putting up that 3-digit number is like painting the front door on the house but ignoring the leaky pipes and 40-year-old electrical system.

Meanwhile, other cities that already have 3-1-1 are having problems with their systems working so well that other public agencies and levels of government are taking a little too much advantage. Philly’s status as a city and county relieves some of those concerns but will Philly 3-1-1 hang up on people with concerns about SEPTA or the Parking Authority? Something to think about before we get there.

Oh… and don’t worry. I’ll keep you updated on how my dealings with the city go.


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