BY MICHAEL WALTON
TRAVERSE CITY — There's a place to turn for those who need help paying a utility bill, buying diapers, or finding a counseling service.
The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the 24/7 community resources hotline on Jan. 31 for several northwest Michigan counties, including Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau.
The services were not yet operational as of Feb. 1, but MPSC approval means telephone service providers will turn on 2-1-1 lines "in the near future," United Way of Northwest Michigan Executive Director Steven Wade said.
2-1-1 gives citizens a place to learn about "the gamut" of community resources available in a given region, and what they need to do to access the resources, Wade said.
2-1-1 operators will be available around the clock to help individuals access services related to everything from domestic abuse counseling to filing federal income taxes.
"You don't spend time running all over the place looking for resources in places you won't get help," Wade said.
Citizens can also access emergency resources through 2-1-1 in the event of floods, major storms and other emergencies.
Several local entities started the push for a regional 2-1-1 number about five years ago. United Way served as coordinating and fiduciary agency behind the effort, but groups like Consumers Energy, Rotary Charities of Traverse City, The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Grand Traverse County and the state of Michigan contributed resources and funding.
Grand Traverse County Commission Chairman Herb Lemcool said he was excited about the MPSC approval, but he cautioned that about $80,000 needs to be raised every year to maintain the service in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties.
"We will need more money to make sure this is available," he said.
More than 95 percent of Michigan is now covered by 2-1-1, said Judy Palnau, a spokeswoman for the MPSC. About 480,000 calls were made to 2-1-1 throughout the state in 2011.
"This is really bringing a tried-and-true service that is making a difference in people's lives to this community," Wade said.
2-1-1 services can also be accessed online at: www.call-211.org.