Have you ever driven down the street past a burst water main and wondered who to call to report it — or even if it was worth bothering to call anyone? Or been stopped at a stop light while another driver makes a rolling right turn on red into oncoming traffic — yet the police car on the other side of the intersection seems to ignore the violation and drives off in the other direction? And that seemingly abandoned car on the side street near your home — how long does it have to sit there before someone comes and tows it away?

Then this story is for you. In fact, it’s for everyone who ever wanted to find out how to answer those questions, as well as the countless others that come up in the course of living in Dallas — whether it’s deciphering the bulky trash pickup schedule, determining how to get the city to put a speed bump on your street, or wondering if the fire department still rescues cats stuck in trees.

So many of us are so preoccupied with fighting City Hall or complaining about City Hall that we may lose sight of figuring out how City Hall works so we can actually get something done. We bellyache about paying taxes, but how many of us actually know how to get the city to give us our money’s worth?

In other words, here is what we like to call a Dummy’s Guide to City Government.

Dialing for dollars

There are three ways to contact the city if you have a question about services, such as getting those potholes fixed. You can call your city council member, you can call the department in question directly (in this case, street services), or you can call 311, the non-emergency number set up expressly for that purpose. It’s the latter that city officials insist is the best, quickest and most effective option. Really.

They aren’t alone in this confidence, either. Since the $5 million system was upgraded three years ago, it has been one of the most respected of the two dozen or so 311 systems in the country (as difficult as that may be to believe). Big-time computer experts have called it revolutionary. Other cities — including New York and Los Angeles — have studied it in planning their own 311 projects.

What makes it so earth shattering? Dallas 311 automatically routes requests to the appropriate departments and then tracks them to ensure that service-level agreements are met, and it does this for more than 1 million calls a year covering 650 categories from bulky trash pickup schedules to garage sale guidelines to the no-smoking ordinance, and it does it for 24 hours, 365 days a year. In this, it operates much like the customer service call centers used by businesses such as Lands End or Dell (even uses the same kind of software). Best yet, the operators are live and there are no confusing punch-this-button menus to wade through. (Although, for some reason, 311 is run by the fire department.)

For instance, if you call to report a pothole, the 311 operator punches the keyboard and gets a form on the computer screen designed by the streets department to gather information so they can fix the pothole. It includes size — 3 feet by 3 feet is a routine pothole, which differs from an emergency pothole — location, and contact information. It also often includes response time, which in the case of a non-emergency pothole is 24 days. You can see what the operators see by clicking though the city’s 311 Web site at 311.dallascityhall.com.

What’s the catch?

Ah, you say. That’s it — 24 days to fix a pothole. But at least they’re honest about it. (And if you’re unhappy about response times, then it’s time to call your council member.) Otherwise:

• Have a problem with a wandering dog? 311 forwards your call to animal control, which will respond in one day for an aggressive animal, 45 days otherwise.

• Is your neighbor parking several cars in his or her yard? The call is forwarded to code compliance, which will investigate the complaint within 10 working days.

• Did the garbage truck zoom by without stopping? 311 forwards the call to sanitation, which will make an effort to pick it up if you call before noon that day. Otherwise, you have to wait until the next scheduled pickup.

But what about service requests (or SRs, as the city likes to call them) that don’t involve immediate action? It turns out that the most common 311 request is the phone number for the city jail, so operators are trained to be flexible. That means that if you want find out how to get that speed bump or a stop light for your corner, you should still call 311. The operator will take the necessary information, explain the process to you — there has to be neighborhood agreement in favor of the project as well as a traffic study to see if it’s necessary and money to pay for it — and either forward the request to the correct department or tell you how to make it to the appropriate department. The turnaround time, by the way, is about three months.

Walking the beat

Turnaround time is more critical at the Dallas Police Department. The cops use a four-tier priority system, where the goal is to respond to the highest priority — shootings, stabbings and holdups — within minutes. From there, response times decline to a bit longer for the second tier (domestic disputes), to quite a bit longer for the third tier (loud music, barking dogs) to the next day for the fourth tier, which includes crimes, such as car break-ins, where the criminal is long gone.

Response times matter in another way. The police department is organized into six reporting areas (soon to be seven), or substations, based on geography. East Dallas and Lakewood are divided between the Central and Northeast substations; the boundary follows Vickery, La Vista and White Rock Creek, with everything below that in the Central area. Each reporting area is divided into sectors, and each sector is divided into beats. The size of the beat is based on the amount of reported crime, with more crime translating into smaller beats, and hence quicker response times. The best view of this, along with current and historical crime statistics, is on the police Web site at dallaspolice.net.

The demands of the priority system help explain why you don’t see more cops walking the beat (even though officers are encouraged to get out of their patrol cars every once in a while) or making routine traffic stops. The reason? The officer has to check with the dispatcher before walking the beat or making a traffic stop (or eating lunch, for that matter), so if there is a higher priority call waiting, the officer responds to that instead. So an illegal right on red always takes a back seat to a shooting.

By the way, the police department (and the fire department) wants you to call 911, even if you’re not sure it’s an emergency. Better safe than sorry.

Of course, not all police business is concerned with emergencies:

• Want to set up a neighborhood crime watch or have an officer speak at your crime watch meeting? Call the Interactive Community Policing office (Central at 214-670-4420, Northeast at 214-670-7768). They’ll also inspect your home or business and offer crime prevention tips (on a first-come, first-served, time-available business). Incidentally, there are 1,400 crime watch programs in the city.

• The department offers three other crime watch-style programs, also coordinated by a community police officer at the substation. VIP (Volunteers in Patrol) participants patrol their neighborhoods — you get a nifty magnetic sign for the side of your car — and report suspicious or criminal activity via cell phone or radio. CHIPS (Citizens Helping in Parking Solutions) are trained to write tickets for cars illegally parked in handicapped spots — and only handicapped spots, emphasizes the department. At the Citizen’s Police Academy, residents can get a feel for real police training — including time on the firing range — in a three-hour-a-week, 10-week program that takes place at the police academy.

• Need to hire an off-duty officer for a private function? Contact the personnel department (214-761-4410), which posts all openings — everything from Texas-OU weekend to neighborhood block parties — through a department intranet. Jobs are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Fire engine red

Response time is also a key focus for Dallas Fire-Rescue (as the fire department is officially known). Typically, says the department, 90 percent of calls to 911 are answered in eight minutes or less, and those that require an ambulance are answered in 4 to 5 minutes.

The fire department has 55 stations throughout the city, four of which are in our neighborhood — stations 8, 17, 31 and 55. Note that only 32 stations have ambulances, so the department prefers residents call 911 rather than drive the injured person to their local station (where even if there is an ambulance it might be out on a call). And yes, they say, that happens all too often.

Stations are located in accordance with population density, which explains why there are four downtown within a mile of each other and just one in some corners of the city. The complete list is on the department’s Web site at dallasfirerescue.com, which includes live summaries of which station is answering which call. There are also fire statistics, but they aren’t as comprehensive as those on the police Web site (although there are spiffy histories of each fire station).

And, like the police, the fire department provides a variety of non-emergency services:

• Firefighters still respond to calls from little old ladies (or not so little young men, for that matter) about cats in trees. This has been department policy for about a century, although a couple of things have changed over the years. Trucks don’t race to the scene with sirens wailing, and it’s up to the individual firefighter’s discretion about whether to climb up after the cat. After all, cats do like to scratch.

• Need a firefighter to speak to your group? Want to tour your local station? Contact the public education office at 214-670-4633. Again, it’s first-come, first-served.

• Locked yourself out of your house? You can call 911 and they’ll send a fire truck, but it’s with the understanding that they aren’t locksmiths and they may have to break a window to let you in.

Dallas is the second-largest city in the country with the council-manager form of government, which means the city is run by an appointed city manager. Think of it as a large company, where the city manager is the CEO, the council is the board of the directors (with the mayor as the chairman of the board), and residents are shareholders — shareholders who pay taxes instead of receiving dividends. You can keep tabs at dallascityhall.com.

Basically:

• There are 14 council members who represent districts, while the mayor is elected city wide. The council members serve two-year terms (maximum of four terms); the mayor serves for four years for a maximum of two terms.

• Want to speak at a council meeting (held the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month)? Register with the city secretary’s office at 214-670-3738.

• Dallas includes 384 square miles of land, 45 square miles of lakes.

• The population is 1.2 million, with 36 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white, and 26 percent African-American. Almost 20 percent of us are 25-34, the largest age group.

What the city doesn’t do:

• Driver’s licenses. That’s the state’s responsibility, part of the Department of Public Safety (the same folks who oversee the Texas Rangers).

• Assess and collect property taxes. The state (really) does the former through something called the Dallas Central Appraisal District, while the county handles the latter through the tax assessor-collector’s office. The central appraisal district assesses property for 51 local governing bodies — school districts, cities, and the like — in Dallas

County and parts of the six surrounding counties.

• Voter’s registration. Again, the county’s job, through the registrar of voters.

• Issue liquor licenses. The city can zone for liquor, but only the state — in the person of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — issues licenses. This means that if a business meets the state requirements, the city has to let it in, even if it doesn’t want to. Yes, this doesn’t make much sense, but the

Texas legislature works in mysterious ways (and the liquor business has a powerful lobby).

What you likely don’t know, but probably should:

• According to city ordinance, you can hold two garage sales each year. They can’t last longer than three days, and you can only sell your own junk. The ordinance expressly forbids selling merchandise acquired solely for resale purposes. Also, any signs advertising the sale can only be placed on the property where the sale is occurring.

• People call 311 to report violations of that last bit. It turns out it’s a violation of the City Code to post garage sale signs on a utility pole, tree, or along the City right-of-way. A violation is punishable by a fine of not more than $2,000 per day per violation.

• Know the watering ordinance. Ordinance prohibits watering “in a manner that wastes water or causes runoff including causing water to fall on sidewalks, driveways or other areas not lawns or landscapes.” It is also apparently a violation to water when it’s raining (which should really give cranky neighbors something to call 311 about). In addition, between June 1 and Sept. 30, watering is prohibited between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

• Home-based businesses located in residentially-zoned areas can’t have more than two employees, other than occupants of the residence. Plus, they can’t advertise or use a sign either on or off the premises.

We didn’t make this up – honest. Those interviewed for this story were Capt. Jesse Garcia of Dallas Fire-Rescue; Senior Corporal Edward Gilliam of the Dallas Police Department; Roland Gamez, the Dallas Fire-Rescue assistant chief who oversees the 311 system; Adrienne Grier, the city’s 311 coordinator; and Mike Cinelli, the director of the public information office.