“Thank you for calling the Ulster County Service Center,” says the lady with the robot voice, “your one-stop for information about county programs and services.”
Questions about dead-deer removal, human trafficking, obtaining a new street address, or making a juvenile firesetter intervention? Anticipating thorny questions is the bread and butter of the operational model over at the Ulster County Recovery Service Center. Or it was.
The service was a well-intentioned relic for gleaning public information, reminiscent of a time when phones had buttons to dial and phone booths had phone books if you needed to know a number to call.
An amendment to eliminate the division from the county’s budget for information services passed the Ulster County Legislature on November 30. Prior to that negative vote, $341,327 of taxpayer funds had been earmarked for the service in the 2023 Ulster County executive budget.
Covid 19? Issues pertaining to county roads? Food or housing assistance or help with the elderly? Mental-health counseling services? Assistance from other county departments?
Press five and further down the branches of the phone tree the caller goes.
With the Internet looking over the county’s shoulder, couldn’t the money have been better spent elsewhere over the last three years?
“We set up a call center during those first few days of Covid,” says deputy county executive Chris Kelly. “We staffed it with people that were volunteers or we pulled people from departments. Very quickly, that was one of our first efforts when the cases started coming.”
That was in March 2020, during the first wave of infections. By that summer, the number of cases had begun to fall off significantly. The mission of the hotline began to pivot.
That June, then-county executive Pat Ryan announced the launch of a program conceived as a single point of entry to provide community member support on a wide range of issues and topics. Like 311 in New York City, one telephone number would have all the answers.
“The function stayed largely the same with a lower call volume during that summer,” recalled Kelly. “And while the vaccine production seemed to be coming to fruition, we started gearing up for vaccines and re-examining what our role would be. And boom! We got hammered with that next wave.”
As the number of Covid cases soared again, the various vaccines which hit the American market were not necessarily available. Limited quantities, prioritized waiting lists, and erratic distribution by the federal government contributed to the confusion. There were more questions than answers, and more people asking than could be answered.
“Eight thousand calls in a single day, just on vaccines,” said Kelly. “It’s not even hyperbole. I just remember that was the light at the end of the tunnel we saw and then we got overwhelmed.”
The next wave rose and fell through the winter, and by the next spring the numbers of infection dropped off as the weather warmed.
At the end of 2021, instead of looking into the county taxpayers’ pockets for loose change, $310,325 in ARPA funds was identified to pay the center’s operating expenses as a pilot program.
As the pandemic attenuated down to an endemic this year, the recovery service center tried to expand beyond the guardrails of its original mission, perhaps explaining the nine percent bump in the pricetag projected for 2023.
Comparing the service center with a startup, director of information services for Ulster County Alan Macaluso described significant steps being taken to provide users of the service multiple channels to find answers via a website, knowledge-based articles, FAQs, live chat and text services currently in development.
On November 22, a week before the legislative meeting on the 2023 budget, an audit report from the county comptroller’s office was less than impressed with what it discovered, It said that the service center was no longer operating in an efficient and effective way.
The report said that during 2022 the call volume for the service center during 2022 had dropped from 6723 calls in January to just 478 calls in October, a reduction which caused the average cost per call to rise from $11.01 to $39.15 per call.
“While our county residents are facing difficult times,” said county comptroller March Gallagher, “it is more important than ever to consider how effectively we are using available funding to address public needs.”
In a memorandum responding to the comptroller’s findings, Macaluso resisted the portrait presented in the audit. Citing two non-health-crisis-related events which had increased volume to the service center in the past year, Macaluso took issue with the assertion that heavy call volume occurred only during a health crisis.
Macaluso was referring to the February 4 ice storm which found the City of Kingston under glass for 48 hours, and to Central Hudson billing irregularities thus autumn which resulted in widespread anxiety throughout the region.
Macaluso argued that the program offered a tremendous benefit to the residents of Ulster County by providing a central hub for residents using multiple channels of access to request information. But he recognized that the incoming phone calls to all county departments couldn’t be answered by four individuals. The service center has a staff of four, consisting of two management-level employees and two customer service representatives.
“What is being said now, the comptroller’s report, the numbers are the numbers,” said Kelly. “When you’re speaking public dollars, there’s going to be a higher level of scrutiny as to how much you spend.
“It’s not that anyone is saying everything’s a failure here. The investment in the learning over three years, this money will not go to waste. We’ve made a lot of really good headway in how we approach the constituents. How do we make this done in an efficient way that respects those dollars spent? I think that as government we all have a duty to provide services going forward.”