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Plans for neighborhood Internet hookups on holdEdit

By Ellen James, TRIBUNE-REVIEW, Tuesday, April 8, 2003

A plan to supply recreation centers in or near five city neighborhoods with computers and online access is on hold for a year because officials say Pittsburgh can't afford to spring for Internet connections.

Pittsburgh Public Schools has offered to donate and install 32 computers at the centers, leaving the city to pick up $4,200 in annual Internet connection fees. But city officials -- facing a projected $60 million budget shortfall this year -- say the centers will have to wait.

"We don't have any extra money," said Craig Kwiecinski, a spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy. "But the administration has committed to sending a request to the council as part of the '04 budget."

Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network members have pushed to get computers in the five city-owned centers -- in the South Side, Bloomfield, Beltzhoover, Polish Hill and Brookline -- so children can use the Internet for after-school programs and tutoring. The city owns 19 centers that provide educational, fitness and other programs.

"It's in the city's best interest. We can't afford not to do this," said David Dunn, chairman of an Interfaith Network task force on youth recreation.

Based in the [[Hill District[[ and formed in 2001, the nonprofit Interfaith Network is composed of more than 30 congregations, mosques, synagogues and other faith-based organizations.

The five centers were picked to receive the computers because of their location in or near low-income neighborhoods, where children are less likely to have a computer in their home, Dunn said. Pittsburgh Public Schools would provide at least four computers -- plus backups -- at each of the centers. There are no computers in the centers now, Dunn said.

Dunn estimated the cost of the Internet connection at $70 per month for each center, or $4,200 a year for all five centers. The centers have space for the computers, and most centers have cables for computer modems.

City Council President Gene Ricciardi was scheduled to meet with Interfaith Network members last month regarding the computers. But that meeting was canceled, a staff member said. Two centers are in Ricciardi's district. Ricciardi couldn't be reached for comment.

Councilman Leonard Bodack Jr. -- elected in February to replace Jim Ferlo, who was elected last year to the state Senate -- said he was unaware of the plan to add computers at the centers. Two of the five centers are in Bodack's district.

About 500 people attended a network meeting in February 2003 in a Hill District church, booing Deputy Mayor Tom Cox when he said the city couldn't pay for the connections.

Members of the network task force called for the mayor's office to scrap plans to spend $100,000 to light three Ultimate Frisbee fields in Highland Park and use some of that money to add the computers at recreation centers.

Elbie Yaworsky, chief technology officer for Pittsburgh schools, said the computers would help students from low-income families and give information technology students some hands-on training.

"It's a wise investment for everybody," Yaworsky said.

Dunn agreed.

"Kids who are introduced to computers and technology do better in school and can find better jobs. People take their computers and all the information that is stored on it for granted," Dunn said. "When you don't have it, that makes a huge difference."

The computers would have filtering devices to prevent students from accessing adult-themed Web sites.

Ellen James can be reached at epjames02@yahoo.com.

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