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Frank Gray

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Sanda Minic helps a caller Wednesday at the 311 call center at Citizens Square. Operators field questions and complaints.

Fort Wayne 311 center fields some bizarre questions

Awhile back, a woman called Fort Wayne's 311 call center to report, of all things, a dead llama in the road.

At least, that's what she thought it was. It didn't look like a big dog or a horse. It looked like a llama, she said.

So, a little amused, the operator filled out a work ticket for the appropriate department and city workers checked it out and, indeed, there was a dead llama on the road.

All this raises a question. Whom do you call to report llama roadkill? Animal Control? The street department? The zoo? The city's llama department?

No, you call 311, the place where people call for just about anything you can think of.

I dropped by to take a look at the center a couple of days ago. It's a neat little operation with orderly cubicles and carpeting and the distinct scent of air freshener.

Nearly 200,000 people call the center each year for just about any kind of problem imaginable.

The most common complaint, said Julie Sanchez, director of citizen services, relates to solid waste, otherwise known as trash pickup.

The city picks up trash for 120,000 customers every week, so it stands to reason that most comments-requests-complaints would have to do with that.

People complain about potholes and tall weeds and the usual gripes.

Senior citizens who don't have computers, can't figure out how to use a smartphone or read the small type in the phone book will call 311 and ask to be connected with agencies or businesses.

It's a service, Sanchez said, and it's all about quality of life.

But what about the weird calls? Do you get those, I asked?

You bet they do.

Once, someone called 311 and asked how to make a long distance call to China.

A logical response would be to say that has nothing to do with city services and hang up. But that's not the way 311 works, Sanchez said. The people who handle the phones have to sound nice, she said, but they also have to be kind.

You can fake nice, Sanchez said, but you can't fake kind.

So the person who took the China call was kind enough to Google the topic and figured out for the caller how to telephone China.

That call was actually almost normal.

One caller wanted to know the price of chicken at Wal-Mart, Sanchez said. So the operator offered to connect her to the retailer.

No, the woman said, she didn't want to talk to Wal-Mart. She wanted to know the price of chicken. So the operator called the store and got the answer.

Finding an answer for some callers is just plain difficult.

One caller complained that a homeless man wouldn't mow his grass.

Another caller wanted to speak to Animal Care & Control because there was a cat in the neighborhood that was a slut.

There was the complaint of a neighbor digging a tunnel to get into the caller's house, and a person who reported their dog was barking at a Komodo dragon in the yard.

One person wanted to know if it was legal to own a tiger within the city limits and became a little argumentative when told no. It was just a little baby tiger, the man said.

Another person called to ask the best color for a garage sale sign. It's not clear what kind of answer they got, but I'd say yellow. The words stand out.

Speaking of garage sales, one caller wanted to know how much money they should have on hand – for change, presumably – to start their garage sale.

Others just call to vent. Some are people who are just unhappy.

Of course, the 311 center isn't for crackpot calls. It's for people with legitimate complaints or problems.

And everyone seems delighted to listen.

So while I was there, I decided to start complaining.

They need to run the street sweepers under the overpasses on Broadway. There's all kinds of dirt there, and if you're on a bike and you hit the dirt, you can go down.

And who messed with the traffic light at Fairfield and Pettit avenues? It was always efficient. But someone messed with it and now the light stays red on Pettit forever, even as traffic piles up. Why can't people just leave well enough alone?

Sanchez grabbed a pen and noted my complaints.

On the way home, I noticed the road under one of the overpasses had been swept.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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