Wisconsin Geospatial News

Sharing land information: key to success

Jeff Bluske

Jeff Bluske, Land Information Officer for La Crosse County

For this issue we talked with Jeff Bluske, the Director of La Crosse County’s Zoning, Planning & Land Information Department, where he is the Land Information Officer, the Real Property Lister, and the Zoning Administrator. Jeff recently concluded a one-year term as president of the Wisconsin Land Information Association.

You joined the La Crosse county staff in 1975, about 15 years before the initiation of the WI Land Information Program. Now that that program has been in operation for 15 years itself, how have things changed within the county?

First, let me say that while our county is more urbanized than most others in the state, we have relatively few units of local government: 2 cities, 4 villages, and 12 towns. Not to minimize our challenges, but when trying to integrate land information across this county it is not quite as intimidating as it is in some other places.

We have accomplished a great deal in a short time with the funding generated from the WI Land Information Program. The county is completely mapped for tax parcels. The zoning maps are complete for the 12 towns. We have separate GIS layers for U.S., state, county, and local roads. The 1985 FEMA map is one we use as part of the National Flood Insurance Program. The county surveyor has geographic data associated with the PLSS and section-corner tie sheets. All improved parcels have been assigned addresses used by all units of government including emergency government services. All this information and more are shared without charge to those municipalities that use it.

Beyond the core land records functions, what other uses of GIS have developed more recently?

The County Environmental Health Department now has its own GIS Specialist. They are using GPS and converting their paper files to digital databases. The Health Department is also keeping track of various disease vector control issues such as mosquitoes. The E-911 operation also has two GIS staff who process and distribute address information to the Postal Service, fire, police and sheriff’s departments on a daily basis. They also tie directly to our parcel mapping data for ownership information. They say all this information is useful in a crisis.

How about integration with utility companies?

We supply digital parcel information to Dairyland Power, Xcel (formerly Northern States Power) and to Riverland Energy, a co-op, again, at no charge. All of the utility operations — whether they are cable, gas, electric, fiber-optic, or phone — need accurate land information. We supply them with new subdivision information on an as-needed basis. If they need to re-route due to development, their costs can be incorporated into their operations and charged back to ratepayers; however, the costs of reconfiguration caused by road construction are borne by the company alone. Planning and sharing of information is becoming an ever-increasing way to avoid such costs.

Emergency response is a growth point within GIS these days. How is it affecting your area?

Being located on the banks of the Mississippi River makes us very susceptible to flooding. In addition, valuable wetlands exist in the river corridor. We need better land information to assess risk and to respond when a crisis occurs. We use software to predict flooding effects based on 1-foot increments of the river level, but the base elevation data isn’t good enough for that method to be reliable. The drainage basin upstream of us covers 67,000 square miles and takes in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It only takes 1/4″ of rain over that entire area to raise the river level at La Crosse by 12 inches! In addition, our state wetland mapping is still not in digital form, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not been sharing its wetland information effectively.

All units of local government in La Crosse County have been working together for years, planning exercises to handle emergency situations that use our GIS information. I believe exercises such as this go further to help plan response to a potential terrorist event than anything else. You have to have experience working together first before any plan will work.

What other areas are ripe for land information improvement?

Our state’s system of local assessment is very antiquated and prone to error. As a county we are in a position to supply useful information to assessors to carry out their work. In return we rely on their work to be uniform, taking into consideration all the information they keep relating to use, square footage, sales, number of rooms, bathrooms, sizes of accessory buildings and so on. This information should be automated and shared with planners, realtors, builders and appraisers alike at no charge. Yet the information flows are primitive compared to almost everything else we do.

This section of the Department of Revenue needs complete modernization, even if it takes going to a County Assessor System with additional costs. We are already being forced to incur additional costs in trying to duplicate what the assessors gather but which we can not access. At the state level, it is clear to me that we need a robust land information clearinghouse. People in our county and state need to be able to quickly find comparable information about like properties including reports that summarize this data.

As a long-time member of several state associations, where do you see the current institutional barriers to broader land information integration?

First, I’d like to see broader participation in state associations. I realize that attending these types of meetings means time away from the office, and incurs certain costs; but the benefits — both immediate and long-term — are greater than the costs. Within the WLIA, broadening our base to include more municipal people continues to be important. It would be good to have more utility presence as well.

The lowest common denominator however is found in each county modernization plan — what information is being stored and who is using it. If each county would revisit its current plan by asking all departments to a joint planning meeting, then asking each person at the table (keeping track in a matrix or whatever) what information do you need and why aren’t you getting it, you find out quickly who is the custodian or person in charge of maintaining that data. Then you ask all the questions related to how can I get it on a regular basis. This simple exercise will break down every barrier in place and put importance again on the people making the changes and giving importance again to their daily routine: the value of simply knowing someone is using what I produce.

I have always said there is no use in collecting the data if no one is going to use it. Talk about a waste of time. Sharing of data is so important. If organizations universally sought to push their data out to as many users as possible, everyone would benefit. The simple answer is give your data to your known users. Don’t wait for them to ask. I believe you instill quality and the importance of staff when this happens. It then becomes part of the budget process.

How about the role of emerging technology?

Most counties have aggressively adopted tools to help work better and more efficiently. However, these tools also encourage the streamlining and collection of more information and more maintenance. We then find that’s what we do all day, collect and maintain! This then creates a new need for analysis tools. I believe even though there may be tools available for analysis, NO major effort has been made to make this easy including low-cost training.

I personally think the world should jump ahead ten years to a point when all the worry is out of the way. There are lots of untrained people collecting and maintaining data who do no analysis. Even modern planners know how to collect the data and put it in table form. How many do you know that really analyze it?

The latest thing is how to make use of the Web, and that too raises some interesting questions about how uninformed people might use what we make available. There are issues involving accuracy of our information and the expertise needed to make correct interpretations. Everything we look at and use is abstract and generic until someone adds the value of more data to it. Everyone is looking at the present snapshot.

One thing is for sure — there’s always an engaging challenge!