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The phones at SLO 211 Hotline — San Luis Obispo County’s nonemergency call center — will no longer be ringing in the new year.

Hotline was established 40 years ago to provide free confidential information, referral and crisis support services to the public, but the program will cease to operate Dec. 31 due to a lack of funding.

“For years we could get by on the Bowl-A-Thon (fundraiser) and a grant or two,” said Linda McGregor, SLO 211 Hotline executive director. “It was pretty simple.”

When Hotline added three-digit dialing in November 2007 to accommodate the statewide 2-1-1 system, McGregor said it became more expensive to operate the hotline program.

Money was raised locally to incorporate the 2-1-1 system into Hotline with the belief that federal money would be available in 2010 to help fund the program, McGregor said.

“It became increasingly obvious we weren’t going to get that funding,” McGregor said about the Hotline board’s decision to close the call center.

Calls at SLO 211 Hotline, which utilizes volunteers to answer phones across the county, increased by about 50 percent when the 2-1-1 system was added to the program.

Individuals have been able to dial 2-1-1 since last year to reach SLO Hotline, and 45,000 callers have dialed the number in that time.

“It costs money to take more calls, and that money just isn’t available,” McGregor said. “That’s the bottom line.”

She also said part of the funding problem for Hotline is that many of the local agencies and nonprofits the program helps are the same ones it competes with for grant money.

“We are all going to the same place (for funding),” McGregor said. “(The program) needs a consistent funding source.”

SLO 211 Hotline attempted to partner with an unnamed local agency to increase cost efficiency and keep the phone lines open. However, after months of negotiations, the merger failed.

“The 2-1-1 program cannot continue without a strong commitment from another agency,” said Tim Williams, SLO 211 Hotline board president. “We are sad to be making this announcement.”

The 2-1-1 system was activated to handle calls for help with issues that are not immediate, life-threatening emergencies, and to complement the 9-1-1 emergency line.

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SLO Hotline 211 had four full-time employees, including McGregor, whom all lost their jobs but haven’t given up hope just yet that the program will cease completely providing services.

McGregor and her former employees along with numerous volunteers and board members have committed to keeping the phone lines at Hotline open until the end of the year.

“It just gives us more time to negotiate a handoff,” McGregor said. “Hopefully we can get a warm handoff. Hotline wants callers to never get a disconnect when they call 2-1-1.”

The SLO 211 Hotline board is continuing to negotiate with two agencies to possibly split the hotline service between crisis and non-crisis calls, McGregor said.

“It’s a daunting operation, however, it can be split so it begins to look more manageable,” she said, adding the negotiations look promising. “We are optimistic about that possibility.”

SLO 211 Hotline had a $240,000 operating budget.