PLATTSBURGH - The future of a regional 2-1-1 telephone information system is now in question.
John C. Bernardi, executive director of the United Way of the Adirondack Region, said funding for the system - which has been serving Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties since July 1, 2009 - officially ran out following the one-year anniversary of its establishment. However, the Hudson Valley region call center that operates the system is working with the local United Way - which serves as the coordinating entity for the system - to keep the program running until funding is secured.
"We are okay until the end of August because we've negotiated a continuation with the call center through then," said Bernardi, who serves as chairman of a steering committee established to oversee the system. "Beyond that, the future is uncertain."
"We're operating on fumes," added Bernardi. "[The call center] has been very reasonable. They want to obviously keep us up and running, but we're running on fumes."
The annual operating cost of the system is approximately $85,000 - a fraction of the estimated $350,000-$500,000 cost the United Way steering committee found it would take to establish and operate a new call center in the tri-county region.
The cost of planning and developing the system was funded by a combination of local in-kind resources and through 2-1-1 New York, the organization which facilitates the implementation of 2-1-1 systems. The overall cost to operate the system was funded through a combination of public-private partnerships such as the United Way, major gifts and endowments and state funding.
However, state funding "is not showing any promise of being reinstated anytime soon," said Bernardi.
"We're sort of at a crossroads now with the program," said Bernardi, who added the steering committee is currently working to identify ways to sustain the program. "We're looking at some contractual opportunities and some other sources of revenue that we can utilize to sustain the program. Although we don't have anything concrete at this point."
One suggestion has been to propose the state consolidate toll-free hotline numbers it operates and use that money to fund 2-1-1 services statewide.
"It doesn't look promising, but there are efforts under way to convince the state that they're wasting a lot of money on toll-free numbers when they ought to be investing in 2-1-1," said Bernardi.
"Some of those numbers are being answered outside the State of New York, so that would mean money would stay in the State of New York which makes more sense," added Jeanie D. Roberts, executive director of the North Country chapter of the American Red Cross, who also serves on the 2-1-1 steering committee.
Both Roberts and Bernardi said they'd hate to see the switch turned off for the system just as it is beginning to pick up speed.
"We really think that year two, which we just started, will be critical in terms of its development and its usage," said Bernardi who said shutting down the system would be the worst-case scenario. "We just don't want that to happen because we've got a lot of money, time and energy invested in what we think is a very important program."
According to information compiled for the United Way, the regional 2-1-1 system handled 293 calls from its inception through May 31. Of those calls, referrals were made to 340 providers of health and human services such as mental health counseling, legal services, and providers of basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.
Bernardi said he anticipates the number of those who utilize the system to increase if the program continues.
"We think the first year it's been underutilized but we also recognize that it takes time for this to become familiar to people," he said. "We really anticipate year two to be year of great growth ... that's why we fear having to end the program."
When to dial 2-1-1
If you're looking for free information about health and human services available in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, call 2-1-1. The service, which is accessible from cellular and landline phones, connects callers with a central call center where an operator is available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. The operator is then able to refer the caller to services such as childcare, mental health professionals, food pantries and government assistance programs.
During off hours, a recording will greet callers with directions to call back during regular business hours.