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At least one massively successful city innovation, 311, suggests it can.

Yesterday New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his "Mayors Challenge": a competition for city innovation that promises $5 million to the winner and $1 million to four runners-up. "For an awful lot of cities across this country, $5 million is a lot of money, a million dollars is a lot of money," he said. "Particularly when it's not coming from the taxpayers, but the taxpayers get all the benefit of it."

Still the natural question, given the diminished state of city coffers around the country, is whether the prize money, however generous, will really be enough to fund a project that has a serious impact on urban life. Let's consider the answer using one of Bloomberg's own examples: the 311 city services number used by dozens of cities across the country to facilitate civic engagement.

The credit for developing 311 typically goes to Baltimore, which introduced the number in 1996 as a non-emergency counterpart to 911. But it was Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who developed the tool into "one-stop shopping" for city services in 1999, a place where residents could report anything from potholes to threatening phone calls.

Chicago needed an initial investment of $8 million to implement its 311 system. Strictly speaking, of course, that figure exceeds the Mayors Challenge award ceiling. But there's a lot more to consider. As Diana Lind points out over at Next American City, a smart mayor would leverage the Mayors Challenge seed money into something greater, perhaps through a public-private partnership.

In addition, very few American cities are the size of Chicago. Here's a snapshot of the annual operating costs for five other 311 systems (in cities big, medium, and small) that launched in the recent past [PDF]:

These programs bring us much closer to the Mayors Challenge prize range. In Hampton, Virginia, a city of roughly 140,000 people, the capital outlay for a 311 program was $350,000. (That paid for a facility to be renovated and then equipped as a call center.) By 2004, the annual operating expenses for Hampton's 311 service had stabilized at roughly half a million dollars a year.

In other words, a medium-sized city could easily expect to implement the system for $1 million without any additional expenses or partnerships. But what about when the seed money runs out and the annual operating expenses remain? Well the numbers suggest the streamlining benefits of 311 recoup the costs even in major cities with bigger initial outlays.

In Baltimore, for instance, 311 became a general city services number in 2001 and was integral to the success of the city's broader service accountability network, CitiStat. By 2007 the city estimated [PDF] it had saved $350 million through the CitiStat — nearly $31 million was saved in overtime pay alone — part of which it re-invested in schools and children's programs.

Even if 311 can't take all the credit for the CitiStat savings, the number did improve pothole-response time, which, as San Diegans can attest, saves money in the long run. The service number also expedited the removal of graffiti and abandoned cars — traditional positive "broken windows" measures that don't show up in revenue figures — and improved public health through increased lead paint complaints. (CitiStat won the Innovations in American Government Award in 2004, a year after Chicago won it for 311.)

Houston implemented its 311 service for $2.5 million in August 2001. It realized $100,000 in revenue in a single month later that year as residents with outstanding traffic violations figured out, through the call center, where to pay the fines.

Chicago has similar success stories. Just a few years after the city initiated 311, it reportedly saved about $6.9 million [PDF] in a single year on traffic-light response calls. Chicago also saved millions of gallons of water a year — no mean feat in a city with rising water infrastructure costs — by using 311 to determine which hydrants get busted open most often. The service number also played a key role in arresting the spread of West Nile virus by leading health officials to dead birds and other potential sources of infection.

A million dollars doesn't go as far as it used to in a city budget. For that matter, neither does a billion. But at a time when cities are willing to turn out streetlights to save on electricity costs each month, it isn't nothing. And if it leads to programs like 311 that develop into widespread, cost-efficient urban institutions, it could certainly feel like enough.

Top image: Richard Paul Kane/Shutterstock.com

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