When Rosemount's longtime City Hall receptionist retired recently after 20 years of answering phones and greeting residents, officials moved swiftly to save money by filling her shoes with a telephone answering system.

Weeks into the switch, few are complaining. "I certainly don't see any sign that the community is objecting to the change so far," said Rosemount City Manager Dwight Johnson.

Driven by budget considerations, the retirement of longtime receptionists, new phone technology and city websites loaded with information, front desk duties are changing at Minnesota city halls.

Smaller cities are increasingly finding the receptionist a luxury they can no longer afford. South St. Paul has not had a receptionist since volunteers stopped performing the duty years ago. Robbinsdale and Richfield eliminated their receptionist positions and now assign other workers to fill the role.

"We want to make sure that we take care of our customers, but traffic through the front desk is very low," said Rosemount Mayor Bill Droste.

Some people enjoyed walking down to City Hall, speaking to a pleasant receptionist and paying the utility bill, but now it's difficult to justify that cost, Droste said.

With more people getting information from the Internet, calls to the switchboard have dwindled as well, Droste said. "We have a new phone system and can route and track calls easily now, and we are in the process of redoing our home page. If you have a good website, people should be able to find almost anything they need."

Bigger suburbs such as Eden Prairie, Edina, Bloomington, Minnetonka and Plymouth still have enough phone calls and walk-in traffic to keep people busy answering phones and greeting visitors. But the receptionists also perform any number of other duties.

Robbinsdale's last receptionist who ran the switchboard retired in 2003, said City Manager Marcia Glick. "By then we all had direct-dial numbers, and not every call was going through the switchboard," she said.

Splitting duties

After the retirement, the city dropped the receptionist position and moved two clerks -- one from recreation and one from finance -- to the City Hall information counter.

Even with the split duties, "if you call City Hall, someone is going to pick it up 95 or 96 percent of the time," Glick said.

Similarly, Richfield dropped its receptionist position and has a deputy registrar clerk acting as City Hall greeter. The new municipal building was designed with that in mind, said City Manager Steve Devich. "When people come into City Hall, I still feel it's important that someone be there, a face that they can walk up to and ask where something is."

Back in the day, hundreds and hundreds of calls went through the city switchboard every day, Devich said. "This day and age, there are less and less phone calls because of e-mail, and everybody has a direct number and voice mail."

South St. Paul has operated without a receptionist for as long as anyone can remember with no problem, said City Manager Steve King. One of three people in the finance division picks up the phone.

"The technology has changed and the standard has become self help," King said. "People who are below a certain age, they don't need the personal interaction. They just search for the information they need online."

West St. Paul, also a small city, is an exception. Mayor John Zanmiller said as long as he is mayor there will be a receptionist: "Residents deserve to speak to a human being."

Other cities agree that having a receptionist is still well worth the cost.

"We have one and we plan on continuing to have one," said Eden Prairie City Manager Rick Getschow. "The savings in efficiencies that one person can provide as a receptionist or at the front desk of city hall actually more than covers the position."

'A welcoming face'

The city requires the receptionist to issue dog licenses, serve as a notary and receive all deliveries. In many cases, the front desk person answers questions without referring residents to other staff, Getschow said.

"If you are coming in for any reason into City Hall, to have that welcoming face as a first impression of the city is important," Getschow said.

Minnetonka feels so strongly about its receptionists that it often has two on duty at the same time.

"Our focus is customer service," said City Clerk David Maeda. "In many interactions with the residents, they are the face of the city. Sometimes they are the only people that the resident deals with."

Trisha Sauer, in her 13th year as a Minnetonka receptionist, said no two days are alike. She starts the day by checking the meeting calendar to see who is expected to come in that day. She also updates herself on various projects because she fields a lot of questions on those.

"People are so grateful to get a live person to talk to," Sauer said. "I can't tell you how many times I answer the phone and there is a small pause and they say 'Oh my gosh, you're a live person.'"

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287