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THE GOODS : Service Central : Now California consumers have a one-stop hot line to solve their problems. And the voice on the other end of the phone isn't a recording.


Rhonda Bolden has a good idea of what bugs California consumers. They're worried about failing an auto smog check. They wonder if the roofer who submitted the ridiculously low bid can be trusted. They bought a hearing aid that squawks, but the dealer won't take it back. And they're tired of being bounced from one department to the next in the labyrinth of state regulatory agencies as they seek help.

"Some people really feel like they've hit a brick wall. They can be very irate and upset," says Bolden, a program technician at the California Department of Consumer Affairs, whose job is answering questions on the phone. But that brick wall is coming down.

Bolden is one of more than 50 technicians now staffing the department's new Consumer Information Center.

The hot line is an attempt by the sprawling department--the state's largest--to consolidate information about the 180 industries and 2.1 million Californians it regulates through state licenses.

The department, whose responsibility is consumer protection, hopes the new hot line will address complaints and answer questions on everything from acupuncture to veterinarians, and ease consumer frustration.

"There's nothing worse than calling and getting kicked around," says J.P. Fish, the Consumer Information Division's chief of operations. "We want to be the public's first point of contact and we work very hard at keeping our information updated. Our staff will really go the extra mile, even if it's not an area we specifically regulate."

The streamlined service is part of the department's ongoing push to be more consumer-driven, department spokesman Louis Bonsignore says.

Until now, he says, consumers with questions or complaints first had to wade through the alphabet jumble of agencies to figure out where their concerns would fall.

"Do most people even know there is a Respiratory Care Committee? Or a Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair? Or a Tax Preparer's Program? First you had to figure it out, then work through the local telephone book, or call Sacramento."

Now the department offers one-stop shopping.

The Information Center was formally unveiled recently in Sacramento, after a shakedown period of several months. Located on the first floor of the Consumer Affairs building on R Street, it combines sophisticated technology with the welcome innovation of a human voice on the phone.

In a large, open room, 40 staff members sit at workstations armed with computers, headphones and giant consumer reference-guide Rolodexes.

They take calls in English and Spanish and, through an AT&T special service line, can provide answers to questions in 180 other languages and dialects.

"Our old equipment had recorded information on a 24-hour basis, but we felt that people preferred to get a real person, even if they had to wait," says Arnold Hamilton, deputy chief of the Consumer Information Division.

Now, using an automated call distributor, two electronic marquees display which operators are busy, how many calls are waiting and how long each caller has waited.

The center already has about 60,000 calls a month coming in; officials expect that the number to grow as the word gets out. By next year the hot line number will be included in all California telephone directories.

And Bolden and other technicians will have even more information in their ever-growing consumer references. 'We're constantly in a training and updating mode," Fish says. "That's half the battle."

The range of questions, he notes, offers a snapshot of life in California, where finding a registered acupuncturist can be an everyday health-care issue; dependency on the car is reflected in constant complaints about auto repair services, and perpetual rebuilding from earthquakes, fires and mudslides generates ongoing interest in architects, contractors and builders.

(Not only can the hot line technicians verify licensing in many fields, they can also track any history of complaints about a firm if the request is made in writing.)

"We're up and coming," Bolden says. "We have such a large amount of information available to us, we can be helpful to almost everyone."

She likes her job with its combination of complaint taker, consumer researcher and crisis counselor.

"I'm a patient person, and I have one of those voices that just kind of calms people down. We get such a variety of questions the job never gets redundant. And I've never told anybody that I can't help them, no matter what the question."

The department wishes more people would ask questions, says Joanne Kozberg, secretary of the umbrella State and Consumer Services Agency. "We do a lot.

"For instance, we have so many people making home improvements now--they should make sure the contractors are licensed. Ask more questions. I think if a bid sounds too good to be true, it usually is."

Too often, homeowners don't realize the value of licensing until they've already been burned, she says.

"They don't realize there are a lot of laws in California to protect them."

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