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Salt Lake County's CAT Labs escaped extinction once, but no longer.
The County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate the long-running "Community Access to Technology" program on Nov. 13, largely because members were convinced that people can access computers and help to use them in so many more places than when the program began.
Democrats on the council had doubts about that in June, when Mayor Ben McAdams, also a Democrat, recommended ending the program initiated 20 years ago to help narrow the digital divide between rich and poor by establishing the computer training CAT Labs in lower-income neighborhoods.
While a noble idea, McAdams said, the CAT Labs became a poor use of taxpayer money over time as the number of users at four county recreation centers (Central City, Redwood, Copperview and Northwest) dwindled to just 3,500.
He wanted to transfer $273,000 allocated for CAT Labs to a new senior center in Midvale.
But on a 4-3 vote, the council set aside $70,000 to keep the CAT Labs going while the county staff assembled information to support McAdams' position that most of the labs' resources were available at county and Salt Lake City libraries and senior centers.
Shortly after being confirmed in her new position on Tuesday, county Human Services Director Karen Crompton delivered the findings to the council.
A survey of 370 CAT Lab patrons during July showed that most came to get Internet access, with two-thirds saying that if the Labs were closed, they would use the closest library, senior center or school to find a computer.
If they come to one of the county's 18 library branches, there are 425 public computers available for usage, although there are certain time restrictions in heavy-demand periods, added County Library Director Jim Cooper.
Library employees also are available to provide instruction on a variety of computer-related subjects, he noted, including preparation of resumés.
Crompton said closing the CAT Labs would cause problems for a couple of county employees and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program run by the Internal Revenue Service.
The council endorsed her suggestion to use what's left of the $70,000 to resolve the employee issue and to help VITA expand its outreach program and increase the number of people served.
"Right now [they help] 3 percent of eligible low-income people. Their goal is to double that to 6 percent," Crompton said, noting that CAT Lab computers will remain accessible through the end of April for VITA users. "This is a really good solution for everyone. … It gives them time to prepare."
CAT Lab advocate Dorothy Owen was not satisfied with Crompton's report, saying she expected a more-detailed description of the options that will be available to impacted people.
"The people who use those labs don't have cars, they're the most vulnerable and the ones who need the services most," she said.