Call it Augusta Cares on steroids.
The city's popular customer service line – and behind it, the popular voice of Augusta Cares Coordinator Martha King – isn't going away but is going through a major change.
On June 1, King or a member of her enlarged customer service staff will answer the phone not with the familiar “Augusta Cares” greeting but a new one, reflecting the city's switch to a 311 service, said 311 Manager Kelli Walker.
That means anyone who dials “311” inside Augusta city limits will reach one of seven customer service representatives able to answer nearly any question about city government, take complaints and requests for service, or refer or transfer callers to someone who can help.
“It's going to be what the current Augusta Cares provides times three,” said Walker, the city's Web administrator before taking on the 311 project.
King, who has been with Augusta Cares since its inception under former City Administrator Randy Oliver in the late 1990s, said the service was ready to expand. It took 19,237 calls last year.
“I'm looking at 311 as a positive thing for the city,” King said.
King's experience has not been overlooked as the system expands, Walker said.
“Martha's definitely a vital key to what Augusta Cares has done,” she said. “She continues to play a major part of training staff and transferring knowledge. There's nothing better than that experience.”
Augusta 311 now receives all garbage-collection service calls, which are expected to increase when the city changes to weekly trash and recycling pickup next month. Two solid-waste customer service representatives were transferred to the 311 office, which occupies the ninth-floor “penthouse” of the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building as the city begins renovating the structure.
The city soon will begin marketing the 311 number to the public and is working through the kinks as the transition continues, Walker said.
Among them are ensuring calls made near the Columbia-Richmond county line get to the appropriate office. Both governments now have 311 service, so an agreement ensures that calls that wind up in Evans are transferred to Augusta, and vice versa, she said.
Other issues include ensuring that cellphone providers route the calls properly and implementing a new work order system into which 311 will feed and monitor requests that all departments – solid waste, codes enforcement, animal services, engineering and so on – will access.
The Augusta Commission spent $477,000 last year on new software to implement a 311 system.
Already, call volume is up. Since the office began training for 311 on April 3, 7,315 calls have come in, Walker said.
By the fourth quarter of this year, a new citizen-reporting app will allow residents to report issues such as potholes and burned-out lights from their mobile phones, then monitor the city's progress on a dashboard application at augustaga.gov, Walker said.