City Council passes bills to improve 311 service, set up online portal for small businesses

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City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (right) with Council Members Sandra Ung (center) and Gale Brewer at pre-Stated Meeting press conference. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.
Photo courtesy of Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

The City Council passed a mishmosh of bills Thursday aimed at improving the city’s 311 service, as well as creating a one-stop online portal for small businesses and a bill that would make the dates by which commercial landlords must notify the city of vacancies clearer.

All of the legislation passed unanimously in the council’s Stated Meeting Thursday, with the exception of the commercial vacancies notification bill – sponsored by City Council Member Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) — which was opposed by the council’s five Republicans as well as centrist Democrats Robert Holden (Queens) and Kalman Yeger (Brooklyn).

The 311 bills seek to require more transparency on wait-times experienced by callers to the 311 Customer Service Center who request interpreters, the development of a protocol for quickly identifying the languages spoken by callers and 311 to more regularly update categories of services as city agencies introduce new services. 

The bills are meant to alleviate issues many New Yorkers experience with long wait periods and a lack of access for non-English speakers when calling 311, according to a release from City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ office.

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams in Stated Meeting. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo courtesy of Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit.

“New York City is well known for our diversity, including the hundreds of languages spoken throughout our neighborhoods,” Speaker Adams said. “It is critical that all New Yorkers can easily access 311 services in their preferred language to receive the assistance and resources they need. The Council’s legislation is an important step to address longstanding issues with 311 and improve transparency on wait times for service requests.”

Council Member Sandra Ung (D-Queens), who sponsored both the language access and wait time transparency pieces of legislation, said the first bill – Intro. 296-A – is meant to remedy 311 customer service staff often being slow to recognize the language of the caller, which can lead to a couple of issues.

“The call takers at 311 often have difficulty recognizing the language spoken by the caller, which could slow the process of connecting them to an interpreter. Or in some cases, a caller gets connected to an interpreter who speaks a different language,” Ung said. “My bill [would] require 311 to develop a protocol to better identify the languages spoken by callers.”

The bill would also call for the new protocol to be posted to 311’s customer service website, as well as any updates to it, within seven days of its implementation.

City Council Member Sandra Ung speaking at pre-Stated Meeting press conference. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo courtesy of Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit.

Ung’s second bill – Intro. 206-A – aims to increase transparency around the wait times for callers who request an interpreter to be paired with one. To that end, it would require the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) – which oversees 311 – to report monthly on how long it takes the service to pair callers with interpreters – tracking from the moment a caller requests an interpreter until one is actually put on the other line.

“This will provide much needed transparency on the experiences of callers to 311, who need interpretation services,” the council member said. “There are over 200 languages spoken in New York City. And I appreciate the difficulties of 311 call centers in a city where 25% of the residents identify themselves as having limited English proficiency. But they should not receive a lesser service when it comes to accessing government information.”

The third 311 bill – Intro. 240-A, sponsored by Council Member Jen Gutiérrez – would require city agency heads to notify 311 within 30 days of the effective date of a law requiring a new service from the agency, so that 311 can add a new service request category.

Council Member Jen Gutiérrez speaking at pre-Stated Meeting press conference. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo courtesy of Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit.

Menin’s bill – Intro. 116-A – requires the city Department of Small Business Services to set up an online one-stop-shop portal for all permit and license applications required to open a small business in the five boroughs. In addition to English, the portal would be usable in 10 other languages commonly spoken by New Yorkers.

Those using the portal would also be able to track their permit and license applications and allow business owners to pay outstanding fees.

City Council Member Julie Menin speaking at pre-Stated Meeting press conference. Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo courtesy of Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit. 

Menin, who used to own a restaurant and catering business, said she knows from experience how onerous the city’s permitting and licensing application processes can be and this legislation is a way to fix that.

“I experienced firsthand how tough it is to own a small business in New York City,” Menin said. “What our bill does today is create, as a speaker said, a one-stop-shop portal. It will consolidate every single city agency permit into one website, one app. For example if you’re a restaurant owner in New York City, you have to currently fill out 20 separate forms. You have to take, oftentimes, multiple days off of work to go fill these forms out, to get your license, to get your permit. This honestly makes no sense. And what we’re doing today streamlines this into one website, one portal.”

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