By Michael George
Millions of federal and local tax dollars have been paying for free internet access and computers for thousands of Tampa residents. It's a federal stimulus program unique to Tampa that some people are calling government waste.
The program is called AccessALL Tampa. The idea is to help low-income families get access to the Internet. But after one year and $2.8 million in local and federal dollars spent, some say the program isn't worth it.
The I-Team spoke to six public housing residents who currently take advantage of the program. More than 3,500 public housing apartments have been outfitted with a wooden kiosk that houses a computer and modem.
Public housing resident Tralenee Boynton told us the free internet access has been helpful for job searches, running a business from home, and for her kids' schoolwork.
"I've just gone on there to apply for jobs, and check the internet," she said.
The program is run by the Tampa Housing Authority and paid for with $2.1 million dollars of federal money and $700,000 of matching local funds. In addition to the free computers and internet access, the program offers discounted computers and training classes, all aimed at helping struggling families keep up in the digital age.
All of the residents we spoke with said they have benefited from the program. Boynton admits, however, that she can afford her own internet access. In fact, she said she is currently paying for a connection, in addition to receiving a free one from the government.
In the Tampa Housing Authority's annual report to the federal government on the program, several challenges to the program are outlined. Among them is a "lack of interest" by residents to buy their own computers, even after receiving the training and having access to a free computer temporarily. In addition, the report states that only 292 people actually completed the computer classes. The initial estimate of the project was 1,445.
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Lakeland) calls the program government waste.
"I think it's an abject failure. You can't justify that at all. That equates to $7,200 per person, to teach them how to use a computer. A stimulus dollar shouldn't be used to update your Facebook, it should be used to do the I-4 Crosstown connector, they should be used to do infrastructure," Rep. Ross said.
Rosa Hill runs the program for the Tampa Housing Authority. She says they consider it a success.
"The program is worth it. Prime example, we have a gentleman in our class. He came in to learn computer classes, and he's excited about it, so by him coming in and having this experience with us in one week, he's asked for an opportunity to come back in and take reading and writing classes," Hill said.
She said the program has been particularly effective in helping seniors who had little knowledge of the internet and its potential value in their lives.
As for the low turnout for classes, Hill says that problem is currently being addressed. She says some of the classes were not convenient for residents, but they are now offering night and weekend classes, and the number of participants is growing.
"We looked at all the barriers for the first year that may have caused a resident not to attend, and we've addressed those and revamped those to make it easier for the resident to come to the trainings," Hill said.
But critics believe free computers and internet access shouldn't be a taxpayer concern.
"I think we're taking a terrible path that the government should not be involved in," Rep. Ross said.
Tampa Housing Authority officials say they have no model to base the program on, because the program is the first of its kind. Most programs aimed at improving internet access provide it in public places like community centers and libraries, rather than in individual apartments.
Supporters of the program also say its success can't be properly judged until it is complete one year from now.