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In-person utility payments to be handled by 311 staff

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The expansion of the 311 service next week to include counter service was originally conceived as a cost-saving measure, but a union leader is predicting there will be no savings and service will deteriorate.

Members of council were told Wednesday afternoon that the three civic employees from the water and waste department who accepted utility payments at the main-floor counter in the administration building at 510 Main Street will be replaced by four lower-paid, 311 staff who will handle complaints and enquiries about all civic services, along with accepting water bill payments.

"While the proposal was put forward as a cost reduction measure, the new staffing arrangement is being implemented with a view to expanding the services we provide at the counter," Deepak Joshi, the city’s chief operating officer, told councillors in an email.

Joshi was not available to talk to the Free Press about the move this morning but civic staff said the change is expected to result in annual savings of $176,000. There will be no layoffs with the move; the three water and waste department staff will be deployed elsewhere; and 311 will not be hiring any additional staff as a result of the changes.

Union leader Mike Davidson questioned whether the city will achieve any cost savings or service improvements.

A civic spokeswoman said the water and waste department counter handled about 40,000 in-person bill payments annually. Joshi told councillors in his email that about 10,000 water utility account holders have complex issues and they will now have to deal with a utility representative over the telephone before they can pay their bills at the counter.

Joshi said phones will be installed near the counter for those individuals.

"These customers will still receive the same quality of service as of today, albeit in a slightly different way," Joshi stated in his email to councillors.

But Davidson, president of CUPE Local 500 which represents staff in the 311 and the water and waste departments, said he envisions people dealing with the water and waste department will be receiving poorer service and he doesn’t see how there can by any financial savings by simply shuffling staff from both departments to new responsibilities.

"They’ve added another layer of bureaucracy," Davidson said about the move. "How is that an improvement in service?"

Davidson said the water and waste counter staff often deal with complex billing issues from landlords and homeowners questioning large bills or loss of service, adding now those people will be redirected elsewhere instead of dealing with staff at the counter.

In addition to accepting water bill payments and dealing with questions about service, the water and waste counter staff also accepted property tax payments, and sold dog licences and transit passes.

After being converted to a 311 counter, all those services will still be available, except complex water utility issues will be re-directed elsewhere. A civic spokeswoman said the 311 counter staff will not be answering phones but only dealing with the public in person.

The change takes effect Monday, Sept. 16. The new 311 counter will be staffed Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

The city is touting the new 311 counter service as a further an enhancement to the much-publicly-maligned 311 Contact Centre. Before the 311 system was implemented in January 2009, citizens could call civic departments directly, but now all such calls are handled by 311 staff; initially only by phone but now also email, fax, online self-service. A 311 mobile app was recently added.

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