As the city looks down the barrel of a $338 million budget deficit that will cost hundreds of city jobs and make bone-deep cuts to city services, Mayor Gavin Newsom has approved the hiring of at least 21 new employees to one of his favored pro-jects, the 311 Customer Service Center.
The new operators are classified as temporary, but nonetheless critics say adding staff to a nonessential department is outrageous when as many as 450 city jobs are about to be cut and public health services are facing millions in cutbacks.
The popular 311 Customer Service Center is the first stop for callers who need to navigate the city's labyrinth of agencies, departments, and services. Simply dial 311, and an operator will help you find your birth certificate, record the location of a pothole, or tell you if your bus is on time. Newsom's goal is to have each call answered within 60 seconds, seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Since the department took its first query in March 2007, the mayor hasn't missed a chance to hold a press conference at the center, which costs taxpayers about $10 million a year. He presided over the grand opening, personally answered the millionth call (some guy named Dean who complained about a tipped-over newsrack) the following October, and returned to celebrate the two millionth call. Last year, he even used the center to present the city's 2007/2008 budget.
But the mayor's critics say he has gone too far by lavishly staffing his pet project.
"What's outrageous about this is that these hires were made at the very end of the fiscal year when we are considering a budget with massive layoffs and cuts to services," says Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. "We are cutting the health safety net and making these hires just seems ass-backwards."
The mayor's office is downplaying the new hires. Deputy communications director Joe Arellano wrote in an e-mail: "They help us fill the high-traffic slots and shifts during the summer months when calls and demand are up. 311 has a budget for temp hires that covers the cost."
SF Weekly tried calling 311 customer service director Nancy Alfaro to find out how much taxpayers are paying for the new operators. When she didn't return our calls, we dialed 311 to ask an operator to help find her. We were put on hold briefly and then cheerfully told, "She's in a meeting."