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20 years into Menino’s term, City Hall gets voicemail

A new phone system at Boston City Hall will allow the first widespread use of voicemail since Mayor Thomas M. Menino took office.

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A new phone system at Boston City Hall will allow the first widespread use of voicemail since Mayor Thomas M. Menino took office.

Call Boston City Hall, and you take your chances. Civility or disrespect. The person on the other end of the phone could be a courteous city worker ready to help — or a churlish bureaucrat eager to hang up.

In the two decades Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been in charge, there has been one nearly absolute guarantee: A caller would never reach voicemail.

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Until now.

A new phone system being installed at City Hall will allow the first widespread use of voicemail since Menino took office in 1993. This answering service will be restricted to off hours, and constituents will always be able to reach a human being at the city’s 24-hour call center.

But wait, there’s more.

The telecommunications network will soothe callers waiting for service with mellifluous hold music that dates to the era when Menino first took office. A duet of nylon and steel string guitars play the upbeat 1991 song “Playing For Time” by Acoustic Alchemy, a Grammy-nominated New Age band from England that still hops the pond to play regular gigs at Scullers Jazz Club in Allston.

The network will also allow for other advances, such as video conferencing, but that is not what dragged the city into the 21st century.

“The reason we put in this new phone system is because it saves the city a significant amount of money,” said Bill Oates, Boston’s chief information officer.

It marks a subtle but significant change for Menino. Even in the age of smart phones, voicemail remained taboo because the mayor wanted constituents to reach a real person when they called City Hall. On occasion, a city worker would set up an illicit answering machine and the mayor would call to leave his own message.

“He would say, ‘This is Tom Menino calling,’ ” recalled his spokeswoman, Dot Joyce. “ ‘I don’t know who you work for, but in my administration we don’t have voicemail.’ ”

Menino is not a Luddite who has undergone a telecommunications conversion in his fifth term, aides insist. He resisted an answering system because he did not want city employees hiding behind voicemail. Now, technological advances allow voicemail to be restricted for off-hours and weekends.

The new phones use a $6 million fiber optic network the city completed in 2010 that connects almost 200 municipal buildings on a system that allows data to travel at the speed of light. Instead of paying Verizon for thousands of land lines, the city will maintain its own phone network, a move that will save roughly $10 a month per phone line, Oates said.

Engineers have installed roughly 1,000 new phones at City Hall and 1,100 more in other municipal buildings, including Boston Police headquarters. That has amounted to a savings of roughly $20,000 a month, and more phones will be rolled out by department, Oates said.

“The concept is still personal service whenever possible,” Oates said. “Our policy is you don’t use [voicemail] during the day unless somebody specifically asks for it. Then you can be transferred in. After hours, you will go into voicemail, but you always have the option to kick out to a person.”

Count the hold music as an added bonus. It will be a way to get an Acoustic Alchemy fix until the band’s next set at Sculler’s.

“Boston? I love Boston,” said Acoustic Alchemy’s Greg Carmichael in an interview from London. “I’ve had this before in England — I’ve been ringing some company and I’ve been put on hold and there’s an Acoustic Alchemy track. I think, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. How did they get ahold of that?’ ”

In Boston, “Playing for Time” came as a preprogramed jazz option for hold music on the new phones from Cisco Systems.

“We’re sort of under the smooth jazz banner,” Carmichael said. “They probably think that’s perfect for somebody to have on the phone while their put on hold.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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