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Everyone knows about 911 – it's the number used for emergencies, most memorably in the call made by Amanda Berry the night she, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued.

But there's another three-digit number for non-emergency complaints that most Clevelanders have never heard of, which is 311.

In many cities all over the country, that is the number you call to get action on nuisances, such as tall grass, garbage that's gone uncollected or has been dumped, graffiti and potholes. 311 is supposed to be an easy-to-remember number to call for all those complaints.

"Looking at Cleveland's web site, you would never know that they have a 311 system," says Benjamin Clark, an assistant professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs. He has examined 311 systems all around the U.S.

The beauty of 311 is this, he says: "From the citizen's side, it helps cut the red tape of finding out who to call. You don't have that problem anymore."

Is 311 working in Cleveland? The city says its phones are ringing off the hook with 311 calls.

"I think we're probably averaging a little over 330,000 annually," says Darnell Brown, the city's chief operating officer.

But the city database that we obtained of 311 calls shows only 35,000 calls over 19 months. Brown says that is because those are the calls that actually relate to nuisances -- many of the other calls are simple requests for information.

Brown says the reason people in Cleveland don't know about 311 is that, "We are what we call in a soft launch mode."

That's one way of putting it. Others, including council members, say the city is dragging its feet.

Councilmen Kevin Conwell and Matt Zone heard about the effectiveness of 311 when they went to a National League of Cities conference in 2003. In early 2004, the two council members passed a resolution calling for Cleveland to create a 311 system, too.

That was nearly 10 years ago.

"I'm not happy it's taking this long," says Conwell.

The city's 311 system actually went live in 2009 -- and a call center was created, which is staffed by seven operators. But a number of city departments still aren't connected to the system -- including the Department of Public Health.

CSU's Clark says that's a huge problem. To be effective, 311 needs to incorporate all city departments.

In the neighborhoods, people are confused. They are calling all kinds of city numbers, from various departments, to police stations, to the mayor's office -- and very often, they say, it is to no avail.

Jamarcus Bonner and his mother live on an East Side street with an abandoned house that draws vandals, or worse.

"She's called about ten times," Bonner says, over the past year or so but has gotten no response from the city.

Carolyn Dennis lives right next door to that abandoned house, and she, too, has made many calls to the city. She's concerned about what kinds of crime the empty home could attract.

"Anyone can be there and pull children inside," she says. "I've been here 20 years, and it has been the same."

It's one of thousands such houses around the city.

But there's on one East 87th street -- a short street near Chester that features many new and beautifully maintained homes -- that is exceptional in its overgrown appearance.

"It's very spooky," says Marcia Jones, who lives directly across the road from it. Several weeks ago, someone began stacking old tires on the tree lawn in front of the house. Jones says she has made many calls to the city too, but nothing has been done -- not even the tires have been removed.

She says she would have called 311 if she knew it existed.

Lydia Diedrich, who lives on the West Side and has called in complaints to the city about graffiti, says she also would have.

"It'd be seriously awesome, but I've never heard of it," says Diedrich. "And I don't know anyone who has."

In Akron, however, residents are familiar with their city's 311 system.

"It's one-stop shopping," says John C. Eaton, who heads the Department of Neighborhood Assistance and oversees the call center. "It's very economical for the city too."

As in Cleveland, there are about seven operators covering daily shifts. In Akron, they have staggered start times, stretching the time that calls are answered by a live operator.

Mike Brillhart, the owner of Cottage Muffler & Brake, just down the street from Akron's call center, has been impressed by the action the call center gets.

"You call, you get a live person right away, and the problem is fixed, usually the next day," Brillhart says.

He has called with a variety of complaints -- potholes, someone sleeping in a car, and so on. If customers who visit his shop have a problem, he'll urge them to call 311.

Akron is one of many cities that have come to rely on the system. Columbus, Minneapolis, Denver and Houston are others.

Baltimore was the first -- it created its system in 1996.

Many cities with 311 also have websites that show how quickly, and when, the city departments have responded to the complaints. Some have even expanded their site to be used with smart phones, showing "real time" photos of problems as they exist, and are fixed.

The patterns of 311 calls are used by cities to better manage their resources, notes both Akron's Eaton, and CSU's Clark.

Yet in Cleveland, years of talk have led only to a partial system that is foreign to the people it is supposed to serve.

Brown says he can't say when all the city's departments will be hooked up to 311.

Maybe in 2014? He wouldn't go so far as to say that.

The problem, he says, is not with the call center itself. "Intake is great," he says. But he says it's important to ensure that "on the back end" the city can deal with the complaints it gets by providing the service that's being requested.

For now, if city residents call 311 during the day, they will reach the call center. But it is rare for people to call that number now -- usually, the calls that go to the operators are patched through from residents calling other city numbers.

Brown says eventually there will be a push to let city residents know about 311.

"When we go live, there will be a public campaign to announce it," he says.

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