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County has decision to make on adding GIS technology

MORRIS - When Stevens County residents come to see Environmental Services/ Planning and Zoning Director Bill Kleindl to ask about a new project on their property, Kleindl uses an aerial map of the county and geographic software to help make his decision.

Using mapping and spacial analysis software, Kleindl and the property owner can look at an aerial view of the property to measure setbacks and variances to give a preliminary call on the project immediately.

"I find that very valuable, and I think the property owner does as well because it saves me time and it saves them time - I can pretty much make a judgement call right here at my desk," said Kleindl.

Kleindl's use of geographic information system (GIS) data, while useful, is still pretty limited. Since 2008, Stevens County has been slowly building the base layer for GIS use by county staff and residents, and has reached a point where decisions need to be made about how to further invest in this technology before it can be more widely adopted and used.

When Information Technology Director Scott Busche was hired by Stevens County in 2007, GIS was one of the technology priorities he was directed to get started on right away. After meeting with other counties with more advanced GIS departments, the county hired an independent consultant to help build a map of all the properties in Stevens County - a parcel layer - which is the base layer of a GIS.

GIS integrates hardware, software and data to manage, analyze and display information that can be geographically linked. As data is collected, more maps are created that can be placed on top of the parcel layer - much like pages can be placed on an overhead projector - to provide information about properties, landforms, roads and more across the county. Each new layer (collection of data) is tied back to the original parcel layer, allowing users to visualize and utilize that data in new ways.

Brian Armstrong, GIS Department Manager for Otter Tail County, describes GIS as a way for different sets of data to be mapped and compared.

"When people think GIS they think paper maps, and that's not GIS at all," said Armstrong. "GIS is about digital data that the county already has or can get its hands on. GIS is a way to make all of that digital data talk back and forth with each other - you can make relational databases and combine data sets you could not combine before."

One recent example from Otter Tail County was an effort to notify all families with children about the health concerns of lead pipes in older homes. Using assessor's data about the ages of homes, census data about family ages and an address database, the county was able to cut a potential mailing from over 50,000 people to around 2,000 homes, said Armstrong.

Four years after initiating the project, the basics of the parcel layer for Stevens County are in place and the county has developed several potential data layers to add to a GIS map - high resolution aerial maps, elevation maps, zoning maps, tax and assessment data, soil type and soil quality ratings.

After a series of meetings and consultations with neighboring counties who have successfully adopted GIS technology, the county GIS Committee has recommended hiring a full-time GIS technician to move the project forward, a person who can pilot the county's GIS efforts and help county staff and the public learn to use GIS data, said Busche.

The new position, estimated at about $55,300 per year with salary and benefits, is included in the county's preliminary budget, but the Stevens County Board of Commissioners has not made any formal decisions on how to move forward.

GIS has potential uses across departments in Stevens County, although county department heads noted that it's difficult to know what they can accomplish with GIS without a technician on board to help guide the process.

In the Sheriff's Office, the next generation 911 system, set to arrive in the next two or three years, is entirely GIS-based, said Sheriff Randy Willis. All addresses will be plotted on a GIS layer that can be tied to other data sets and offer more specific information to emergency responders.

In the current system, for example, all calls from the University of Minnesota, Morris appear to come from the same address. In the new system, individual buildings or apartments will show up for dispatchers. GIS data could also be used to inform emergency responders about the number of people in a home, for example, as well as provide more specific emergency or snow alerts to only residents who will be affected, said Willis.

County Assessor Judy Thorstad said her office will be contributing data that is used to value the tillable land in the county - soil types and ratings. Eventually, that data could be available online for appraisers and taxpayers to look up themselves, said Thorstad.

The Highway Department has also been collecting data that could be integrated into GIS - traffic counts on county roads and road quality measurements - but that are currently only available on paper maps, said County Engineer Brian Giese.

GIS data could be used to map out the county ditch system, and elevation data could be used to show how high different systems are and the locations of county culverts.

If the county did hire a GIS technician, the first priority would be maintaining and updating the parcel layer. Because the work on an initial parcel layer stretched over four years, the layer needs to be updated with any property splits or changes that have taken place since then, said Busche.

A second priority for an in-house GIS technician would be to offer support for county staff and make GIS data available to the public. Although a consultant could continue to work on parcel layer maintenance, the GIS committee felt that the county would get a better product by hiring an in-house technician to take responsibility for the system.

"I think Stevens County is just at that [size] threshold where having a technician on hand would be the best bang for our buck," said Busche.

Armstrong, who has worked with GIS for 14 years and consulted with several other counties working to implement the technology, also recommended keeping GIS work inside the county because the technician will be familiar with what data is available, who is collecting it, and what technology is available for GIS users. To move forward, Stevens County needs to have someone in place to get the technology off the ground, said Armstrong.

"Quite frankly, where [Stevens County] is at, they have the airport, they have the runway, they have the plane, now they need a pilot," said Armstrong. "They've got everything together but they're missing the important piece to take off, and that's the pilot to make it all work."