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City of Columbia details plan to address persistent delays at its Water Division amid staffing shortages

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Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 9:12 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2022 at 9:14 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The city of Columbia is outlining steps it plans to take to address persistent delays in customer service, which include everything from fixing water leaks to picking up yard waste.

The city currently has a backlog of over 4,000 service requests, and customers are experiencing long wait times at its call center.

The plan outlined by city leadership on Thursday, called the Customer Response Action Plan, is part of an effort to improve responsiveness for residents, from first contact through final resolution of their problem.

“As we promised starting this year that we’re open here in Columbia, and a large part of that is about being transparent and accountable for what’s in our control, and that’s also talking to everybody directly about the issues that we’re facing, the problems that we have and how we plan to fix those,” Mayor Daniel Rickenmann said.

The city says that these issues can be traced back to unprecedented staffing shortages. The city has about 600 vacancies in a number of key departments. Chief among those is the city’s Water Division, which is down 209 staffers.

In response, the city is bringing in private contractors to address a backlog of service requests and repair critical water leaks and service line problems.

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“There are contractors out there who can help complement out efforts with our internal forces and obviously we need that right now,” Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson said.

Columbia will also be holding open interviews and using alternative marketing approaches like billboards and television commercials to staff up.

To get leaks fixed more quickly, the city is also updating operations at its call center.

Evening workers will shift to the day shift, when the vast majority of calls come in, and the city will also be hiring 13 customer service representatives.

“We realize there’s a lot of room to go,” Assistant City Manager Clint Shealy said. “We’ve got a significant gap to close. Our customer wait times when you call to report a service leak or get a payment arrangement, they’re way too long. And it’s not because our staff aren’t working hard, we just don’t have enough of them to handle the volume of calls that we’re receiving right now.”

Additionally, the city will be contracting with a local answering service to answer calls between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., and on weekends.

The city’s call center has seen a 40 percent increase in calls for service since the onset of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, it would receive around 13,000 calls per month, and the center now receives upwards of 25,000 calls per month.

Customers should begin experiencing shorter wait times through the call center next month when these changes go into effect.

Wilson likened the city’s response during this “crisis” to its efforts in the aftermath of the historic 2015 flood.

“People were just looking for information,” she said. “It was a comfort to them for us to stand up out there at the canal as hard as it was to do it because then so many things were on the line. But now too. People are experiencing a lot of anxiety since the pandemic, they are needing to have answers from us as public servants. And that’s what I would say, we’re up here to give them the answers and to be honest.”

Another key problem, officials say, is that much of the city’s infrastructure is aged, which can cause leaks and discolored water. Shealy said Columbia Water is “actively” working on updating aged infrastructure and replacing many of the galvanized service lines in the city, while placing a priority on dealing with active leaks and the backlog of service requests.

Rickenmann said these changes should not mean higher bills for customers.

“What you’re seeing now is us being able to work with our existing budget, and as we move forward and we start to build a budget from the bottom up, we’ll be able to account for all this,” he said. “But it just opens up more opportunities, it makes it more efficient in using the same amount of money.”

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