MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If you’ve ever had an issue with your trash pickup, a pothole, or overgrown weeds, you are probably familiar with Memphis 311.
Standing outside her Cordova home with ivy growing up the front facade, Jessica Gaston looked over to the walkway leading down the left side toward the backyard.
She pointed toward an empty spot.
“Normally recycling goes right here on the other side of the meter next to the trash can,” she said.
For weeks, Gaston went without any way to recycle. The stress of having to figure out how to get rid of the extra trash also added up. She showed a photo explaining why they didn’t have their recycling cart: the wheel broke off.
She put in a 311 request for a cart repair through Memphis’s online portal for 311, which addresses citizen complaints regarding trash, potholes, sidewalks and other service requests.
“Then the recycling people came by and picked up the old one. My husband was outside and said they haven’t brought us the new one yet. They said, ‘It’s fine. They’re going to bring you a new one anyway,'” Gaston said.
But the new one never came.
She put in a new request and showed us the record where it got closed saying the “cart has been repaired.”
“No cart has been delivered,” she answered.
“It’s a little disappointing cause I know they can do better than that. It‘s a service my taxes pay for,” Gaston said.
The Problem Solvers started covering this issue more than two years ago.
“Generally they’re closed a couple days after they’re logged in and the message will be from the city the debris has been picked up,” Candace Jones said in 2020. “The reality is it sits and it grows.”
That’s when we first spoke with Public Works Director Robert Knecht about the shortcomings in the 311 system.
“There are lots of things that happen with service requests in 311 we don’t see. That’s a weakness in our system. That’s why we are looking to replace it,” Knecht told us at the time.
But we never heard anything more. City representatives didn’t respond to further email inquiries.
When we asked Mayor Jim Strickland about the issue, he promised to look into it.
“I don’t mind doing an interview about it later but let me get educated about it,” he said.
As promised, two weeks later, Strickland sat down with us and explained his administration made changes to 311 since the Problem Solvers started covering the issues.
According to Strickland, they focused on:
- Better training of staff, especially people in the field who log updates into the system.
- A new phone system called Mitel that can link numbers with past requests and avoid duplicates.
- Clearer communication with users.
“Before we’d say words that didn’t make sense to non-users like ‘duplicate’ or ‘closed’ or some number service request number. Now you can click on it and see someone went out there on x date,” Strickland said.
But Strickland admitted, some requests still fall through the cracks.
He says 311 logs 200,000 requests a year, which breaks down to more than 500 a day.
We asked why people’s requests were still being closed without a resolution.
“I think it’s mostly human error,” Strickland said.
When we were with Gaston, she called 311, rather than use the online portal.
On the phone, the operator told her the system wasn’t set up to process a request regarding a recycling cart.
“It’s a recycle cart but it keeps going to the regular trash department. Let me change this and put it to the recycling department. That’s why they keep closing it out. Sometimes when it’s the recycle cart it’s best to call us,” the 311 operator said.
“That’s a huge problem, not just for somebody in general who doesn’t have time to make a phone call but you have a huge problem with [people with] disabilities being able to access,” Gaston said.
Soon after the phone call, a new recycling can finally got delivered.
We asked a spokesperson for Mayor Strickland if the 311 system would be fixed to process recycling cart requests. They responded by saying “the citizen is always right.”
“I don’t shy away from us striving to be brilliant at the basics. I think we ought to set the bar high in city government. When we don’t meet it, people ought to call us on it. either the media or the public. They pay taxes. They pay a solid waste fee. They deserve good treatment. We ought to know about it,” Strickland said.
He added people should call his office directly at 901-636-6000 if they have an issue with a 311 request.
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