How Effective Is 311? Don’t Hold Your Breath

This time it landed on the sidewalk. Next time it could be a person.

The following op-ed is from Manhattan Beach resident Allan Rosen. In it, he shares a recent battle with 311 over dangerously neglected trees. Read more of Allan’s writings on Sheepshead Bites. Let us know what you think of 311 in the comments section.

How effective is 311?  Not at all, according to City Council Member Karen Koslowitz from Forest Hills, Queens.

Koslowitz was asked why requests to DOT to fix a pavement hazard, which caused many elderly people to trip while stepping off the curb on Queens Boulevard, had gone unheeded for over two years. She stated that problems just don’t get solved when you call 311.

I tend to agree with her.  My neighbors have been attempting to get dead branches pruned from trees on the border of Manhattan Beach Park for over two years.  Their calls to 311 have not solved the problem. On July 5th of this year, I decided to call 311 for the first time to report the problem. Thus far, nothing has been done although 311 promises responses within 30 days from the appropriate department, which in this case is the Parks Department.  Parks also claims to investigate all complaints within 30 days.

This is a dangerous situation existing throughout the city.  Sheepshead Bites recently reported how a dead tree limb speared an automobile (and here, and here, and here).

That just as easily could have been a person.  This past year a tree branch fell killing a man in Central Park. Last year it was a woman in Philadelphia. Could these deaths have been prevented with better maintenance?

We don’t know, but better maintenance certainly lowers the risk.  About two years ago, I was standing on the sidewalk talking to a neighbor in the sunshine on a windless day when we both heard a thud as a medium-sized branch fell to the ground right between us, narrowly missing us both.

It did not seem heavy enough to kill or severely injure us, but who wants to find out? On my block with 35 trees, 26 of them have at least one dead limb on them. They are all waiting to fall, like ticking time bombs. After every storm, there are new ones lying on the ground.

When I called 311, I was assured that the problem would be taken care of within 14 days and that the private contractor hired by the city would be notified to remove the dead tree limbs. When more than 14 days had passed, I called again and was on the phone for 20 minutes while the matter was being researched and a new complaint was taken because the matter was listed as “resolved.”

It gets worse. According to the call operator, the original complaint stated that there were a few dead tree limbs laying in the grass and weeds and that the grass needs to be cut and the weeds and limbs need to be removed.  This clearly was not the complaint I made because never once did I use the words “grass” or “weeds.” I did state that a few limbs had fallen to the “ground.”

I was told to check back within seven days to find out the status of the new complaint.  However, when I checked the internet for an update, it stated that I would have to wait another 30 days.  This time, no promise was made that a contractor would be dispatched or that the problem will be resolved within a certain time period. At least they weren’t giving me false hope.

Also, rather than stating that there were at least 16 dead tree limbs along the entire block, the complaint stated that there was a single tree on the corner with one dead limb.  I called again to inquire why the complaint had once again been changed and that there was no tree on the corner with a dead limb.  I was told that there were computer limitations as to what could be stated in the summary and that the correct facts appeared in the details section which  I confirmed.  I was also assured that the Parks Department would read past the summary to see the entire complaint.

Guess what?  They didn’t. On Julius Spiegel’s last day as Brooklyn Borough Parks Commissioner, October 1, 2010, he responded that the tree that was inspected and found to be in good condition and the other trees on the block will be trimmed during routine pruning, which he failed to mention occurs once every ten years.   His response to a potentially dangerous situation took over three months, with two follow-up complaints to 311.

Meanwhile, the status of the complaint on the 311 website merely stated, “Response Overdue” and I should call 311 again for an update.  I called a week later, and was told the Department of Parks will be informed that their response was overdue and that I complained again. Another week passed and still no one had come to investigate the problem.  I called 311 once again and was told my only other alternative was to file a complaint on the Department of Parks and call back within 14 days. I filed two complaints against Parks, because the first one was ignored once again.

So how effective is 311 and why do they change complaints made to them? Does a supervisor review them and change them to minimize costs to the city? Is 311 just another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy?  Several years ago I sent an e-mail directly to the Department of Parks when I suspected that a small tree was infected by the Asian long horned beetle.  They cut the tree down within five days although they told me it was not infected by the beetle, but was diseased.

Courier-Life recently reported a similar problem in Dyker Heights where the Parks Department is refusing to take action on a block of diseased trees after numerous calls to 311.  Channel 5 ran a story last month on a situation in Bayside Queens regarding a tree which posed a danger.  In that case, the Deputy Parks Commissioner admitted that the situation was declared a non-emergency without even sending any inspectors.

Whatever happened to accountability?

Unfortunately, the money the city thinks they are saving by not performing proper tree maintenance will be wiped out by the first successful wrongful death negligence lawsuit. Are there statistics kept which show the percentage of 311 calls that are closed out satisfactorily and how accurate are they?  What has been your experience with 311?