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GIS looks to G-R-O-W

Slow and steady progress in the development of a Geographic Information System for Wadena County has stimulated some needed expansion of the county's planning and zoning department, according to county officials.

At the Aug. 1 county board meeting, Deana Skov, planning and zoning administrator, requested the addition of a clerical staff member to allow Gina Dahms, assistant planning and zoning, to devote more time to coordinating the GIS program.

"It's going to grow as big as we want to let it get," she said about the program. "I kind of feel like we have this monster out here. Why have it and we can't control it?"

Wadena County began the GIS program in 2003 in response to the emergency manager's request that a contingency plan be in place in the event a disaster destroyed the courthouse, said Kevin Stensrude, management of information systems director. He said the county has been using part-time effort from the staff of several departments to work on developing a base map of Wadena County. He said other counties such as Otter Tail have their own department of seven to eight people who work on the GIS full time.

The budget for the GIS program is $40,000 per year and has paid for the tools and the vendor consulting from Pro West and Associates, Inc., a GIS specialist. Skov said a portion of the GIS budget could fund Dahms's salary if a new clerical position is created because the county has purchased most of the tools it needs for the program.

Now that the base map is complete, Stensrude said the program is interested in providing information people can use such as tax records and permits. He said the county is looking into getting permits tied to the map.

Dahms said the GIS takes the lay of the land, adds the legal definition of property and permit information on top of the property information.

GIS is about creating pictures out of information, said Stensrude. The county wants to make sure the base map is accurate before it makes the program available for public use on the county Web site, he said. Other counties have made the mistake of creating "pretty pictures" for the base map, he said, while the important information is off by miles.

Stensrude describes GIS as the "proverbial picture that is worth a thousand words." The program is used extensively through an internal system in the courthouse by the assessor's office to determine front footage on area lakes, to evaluate whether land is tillable or swamp land, as well as to give information on the required taxes of pieces of property. The sheriff's department uses the GIS program to track emergency 9-1-1 calls. Other county departments also use the system, and Stensrude said they are all providing input into its development.

GIS is merely a tool, he said, and the program needs the personnel to develop the system so it can be made available to the public.

"You don't just put it in place and magically all the data is there," Stensrude said referring to the GIS. "It takes time."

Dahms said the departments that use the system are finding discrepancies in the information as they go along and the county is looking into forming a committee to work on them.

Skov said the first of next year is the earliest the public will be able to access the GIS on the county Web site. She said the county Web site will have at least the basics of the system and the county can grow it as it goes.

Public input will determine how the GIS is developed, Stensrude said.

"Before we put out a link on our Web site, we want to know what the people who go to a Web site are looking for," Stensrude said. "It is now and has always been considered to be a long-term project."

He encouraged the public to communicate to the county departments they work with or the county commissioners what needs they would like the Web site to meet.

Skov said the way the system develops will determine Dahms's duties if she is able to add the title of GIS coordinator to her job description. She said planning and zoning is working on creating a job description for the new clerical position that, if approved, would begin in January 2007.