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Toronto ombudsman reports spike in complaints about city services

Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean speaks at the City Council meeting in Toronto on Oct. 31, 2012.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Complaints about the service delivered by city staff are on the rise and Toronto's ombudsman says rudeness and poor communication are partly to blame.

Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean released her annual report Wednesday, which showed a 28-per-cent jump in complaints by Toronto residents to her office in 2013 from the previous year. Of those, 70 per cent involved poor communication or inadequate information being given to residents, the report said.

Ms. Crean said part of the reason for the increase in complaints could be a growing awareness of her office, which has taken steps to increase its profile. She speculated that a rise in "social inequality" also could be behind the increase and what she described as the growing frustration exhibited by residents who contact her office – frustration that has required the use of security staff in some cases.

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"People are less patient and less tolerant and when you add in poor communications, then you have a real challenge," Ms. Crean said. "Shouting, cussing, I'm talking about people coming to our office … We have had to call security on a number of occasions."

Mayor Rob Ford has made "customer service excellence" a goal of his administration and said the report shows more work needs to be done, threatening to clean house if changes are not made.

"People have to have their phones answered. They have to be responsive to the taxpayers," Mr. Ford said Wednesday. "Things are changing, but it's going to take a lot of years to turn the culture around in here. We've done a lot in three years and in the next five years or 10 years, as long as I'm mayor, it's going to become perfect. But we're far from it now. I think people are going to get pink slips if they don't start responding to taxpayers when they call."

Far from improving, Councillor David Shiner said the ombudsman's latest report is proof the city's service levels are in decline.

"Customer service is waning. It should be better," said Mr. Shiner, chair of the city's government management committee, which oversees services such as the 311 call centre.

Part of the problem, Mr. Shiner said, is the more than 2,500 unfilled positions on the city's books – jobs that have been approved by council but remain unfilled. He pointed to a shortage of staff and increased workloads for the ombudsman's findings.

"Taxpayers are paying for services that they aren't getting," he said. "They are getting rude responses from staff that are overstretched in their workload and we are not able to complete the jobs on time."

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A spokeswoman for the city said there are a higher-than-normal number of vacancies, which staff are working to fill, but noted the issues raised by the ombudsman relate to customer service and the service standards for staff, which are being reviewed.

"The city manager takes the advice from the ombudsman very seriously," said Jackie DeSouza in a statement.

With a report from Marcus Gee

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