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    Largo workers get loans for PC

    The city hands out no-interest loans for workers to buy home computers - and gain know-how.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


    LARGO -- Roland Lewis got an early Christmas gift Monday.

    Lewis, a communications supervisor for the Largo Police Department, got a check for $1,500 from the city to buy a home computer.

    Lewis, 36, had his eye on a Gateway model with an 866-megahertz processor and equipment to make compact discs. But he didn't want to spend that much of his own money on a computer.

    "I wanted one because mine had become outdated, but I wasn't going to shell out $1,500," said Lewis.

    City officials last week approved computer loans for 30 employees for a total of $42,100. With computers in virtually every facet of society, Largo officials created the program two years ago as a way to help city workers feel more at ease with computers, especially when they're at work.

    "It's important for our employees to be computer literate, and it's an opportunity for employees to learn how to improve their computer efficiency," said Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert.

    Since the program's creation, 179 employees have purchased computers. The maximum loan amount is $1,500, said personnel manager Pat Catalano. The loans are interest-free.

    There are two ways for employees to get a loans. They can have money withdrawn from their paychecks until the loan is repaid. Workers have up to two years to repay the loan. Workers also have the option of foregoing enough vacation time to equate to the loan amount.

    Police Officer Chris Burke used some of his vacation time to pay for his Compaq laptop.

    "No time to take vacation and I definitely needed a new computer," said Burke, 36, a father of two young children who is a history major at the University of South Florida.

    To get a loan, the employee must have worked for Largo for at least two years. The worker must have a satisfactory personnel evaluation and no prior disciplinary action from a supervisor.

    Some private businesses, like General Electric, have created similar programs to increase their employees' performance. Pinellas Park started its own employee computer loan program in March 1996. The workers must buy an IBM-compatible computer. The maximum loan amount is $2,500. Employees must repay the loan within three years.

    Pinellas County looked into Largo's program a couple of months ago but decided against replicating it for county employees.

    County officials reviewed the state constitution and saw a provision that prohibits a government agency from extending credit to a person. The county's interpretation of the rule prompted officials to advise against the program.

    "Our county attorney does not feel it will be of benefit to the public," said personnel director Dave Libby.

    Pedro Serrano, who works in Largo's wastewater treatment plant, applied for a loan in 1998. He wanted a computer because "everybody else I knew had one," explained Serrano, 43.

    With the money, Serrano bought a Compaq Pentium II computer with a Hewlett Packard printer.

    His three teenage children use the computer to surf the Internet and play video games. Serrano used his computer to make birthday cards for friends and relatives.

    Serrano also has used it to work on job-related projects when he doesn't have the time to do so at work.

    "You just sit at home and play on the computer and figure things out," he said.

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