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City looks at adding 3-1-1 line

The nonemergency system is used in 15 cities in the country.
Sunday, November 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:43 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A new three-digit telephone number could help prevent Columbia’s emergency dispatchers from having to field unnecessary calls and give residents an easier way to report everyday problems or get information about city services.

On Monday, the Columbia City Council will hear a preliminary report from Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins on a potential 3-1-1 nonemergency calling system. The number, already used by 15 cities around the country, would provide 24-hour access to information and, it is hoped, reduce unnecessary 9-1-1 emergency calls.

In addition to handling nonemergency calls to the Columbia Police Department, the 3-1-1 telephone line could replace the 12 lines the city has coming into a variety of departments, Hopkins said in her report.

The line also would feature a switching system that would be integrated with the 9-1-1 service. That way, true emergency calls that come into the 3-1-1 line would be transferred to 9-1-1 dispatchers and vice versa.

The price of the line, however, is a primary factor to consider, according to Hopkins’ report. Startup costs could reach $100,000, depending on the features chosen, she said, while maintenance and operations could cost $8,000 to $12,000 a month.

A cheaper option, Hopkins reported, would be to broadly promote the city’s main information line — 874-7111 — that rings at the front desk of the Daniel Boone Building and integrate it with an automated answering service. Hopkins also suggested the city could change that main number to 874-CITY (874-2489) to make it easier to remember. Meanwhile, city staff members would gather data on the nature and number of calls to that line, pursue grant money for a 3-1-1 service, then report their findings to the council after six months to a year.

Unlike many of the larger metropolitan cities with 3-1-1 lines, there is no problem with abuse or misuse of the 9-1-1 system in Columbia, Hopkins said. Still, she and some council members see some merit in a 3-1-1 system.

“I think that we definitely need to improve the way that people can access city services and city government,” said Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku. He added that a well-advertised central number, such as 874-CITY, could work for now.

If grants or other solutions could help the council resolve cost concerns, however, the 3-1-1 system would be a viable option, said Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless.

“I feel certain that if we can implement it in a cost-effective manner, we would support it,” Loveless said.

In other action Monday night, the council will:

n Consider a tougher stance on panhandling. A proposed ordinance up for final approval or rejection by the council would impose further restrictions on the time, place and manner of aggressive panhandling and peddling. The ordinance would restrict panhandling to daylight hours and make it illegal, among other things, to solicit people within 10 feet of any building or within 20 feet of any public toilet, automatic teller machine, bus stop, bank entrance or pay phone; to solicit people who are waiting in lines or sitting at outdoor dining facilities; to follow people who have rejected their requests; to panhandle in groups; or to block pedestrian or vehicle traffic. Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Associations, has taken the lead in lobbying for the new ordinance.

  • Introduce an ordinance authorizing a right-of-use permit with MU that would enable the city to construct, operate and maintain a pedestrian and bicycle trail on MU property near the University Power Plant. The city plans to build a trail beneath Providence and Stewart roads that would connect Phase II of Flat Branch Park to the MKT Nature/Fitness Trail.
  • Introduce an ordinance appropriating $64,585 in State Emergency Management Agency money to the police department for the purchase of personal protective and rescue equipment. The money comes from the State Homeland Security Grant Program.


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