Wisconsin Geospatial News

Wisconsin Land Information Board leaves behind a legacy of accomplishments

Editors note: As recommended in a 2004 joint report to the Legislature by the Wisconsin Land Information Board (WLIB) and Wisconsin Land Council, the WLIB “sunsetted” effective July 1, 2005. This article looks back at the history of the WLIB.

Created by Governor Thompson’s signing of the 1989 State Budget Bill, the Wisconsin Land Information Board set the direction and policies of the Wisconsin Land Information Program (WLIP) for nearly 16 years. As a member of the Board for many of those 16 years, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back at the history and accomplishments of the Board. In the course of looking through old Mapping Bulletin articles and personal notes, I was reminded of just how much the Board accomplished.

The Board established grant criteria
The WLIB truly leaves a legacy of accomplishment; accomplishment that affects the daily business operations of most local governments in the state. In sixteen years, the WLIB awarded over $20 million in grants, most of this going to counties to fund special projects that were outside their normal funding capabilities. In the early 1990’s these projects were often funded at the maximum level of $100,000 each, and typically related to densification of the geodetic control network, conversion of parcel records and maps to digital format, and creation of general base maps including the first generation of digital orthophotos.

From the late 1990s to the present, operating under different grant rules than in the earlier years, the WLIB focused on two areas of enhancing local funding. The first was directed at getting additional funding to counties using a grant mechanism that returned funds in proportion to monies a county collected through the recording fees. This mechanism was known as the Contribution-Based Grant. Each county determined how this money was to be spent, but funds were typically used to enhance projects in progress

The second focus area was to direct funding to specific statewide needs using the Strategic Initiative Grant category. Through this grant category, the WLIB directed funding to metadata development, digital parcel mapping, floodplain mapping, enhancement of county web sites, building a statewide parcel index and property database, and completing digital soils mapping statewide. The soils mapping initiative, a partnership with the Natural resources Conservation Service, was the largest in terms of funding (nearly $3.1 million), and the longest (contributions extending six years). The soils mapping project will be completed next year, making Wisconsin one of a handful of states with complete coverage.

The Board got off to a quick start
In late 1989, former Governor Thompson made Board appointments from a list of individuals recommended by the Wisconsin Land Information Association. At about the same time Bill Holland was hired by the DOA to support the WLIB as its Executive Director. Immediately the Board, with Ben Niemann as its chair, went to work holding monthly meetings. By mid-1990 the WLIB had accomplished one of its early primary goals: identifying a sustainable funding source for the WLIP. Governor Thompson signed into law legislation establishing the real estate transaction-recording fee that year. Over the past 16 years, this fee has provided tens of million of dollars of investment into the foundational components of the WLIP.

When the recording fee legislation was signed into law, a sunset provision for mid-1996 was included. (“Sunset” is a term used for legislation that automatically expires at a pre-determined date.) By mid-1993 many individuals in the land information community became concerned about losing the program funding, and the difficulty of performing long-term budgeting while not knowing if the funding would last more than a few more years. Through advocacy and coordination efforts by the WLIA and others, in March, 1994 Governor Thompson signed legislation removing the sunset date on the real estate recording fee.

By the end of 1990, 71 of 72 counties had designated a Land Information Officer, and the Board had outlined the recommendations and requirements for preparing county land information modernization plans. In early 1991 the WLIB approved the first two county plans, submitted by Milwaukee and Kenosha Counties. A couple months later, John Laub was elected WLIB Chair beginning a run of seven years at the Board’s helm. Mike Hasslinger, Waukesha County Register of Deeds is the only WLIB member to have served on the Board for the full 16 years.

The Board awarded its first local government grants in January 1992, six grants at $100,000 each. The grant process from that beginning and continuing for over the next six years was competitive, with the Board receiving funding requests each year that far exceeded available funds. None-the-less, the Board, using a detailed scoring system, regularly approved grant awards, usually twice per year, and by end of 1996, over $13 million had been allocated to local projects.

Over the sixteen years of the WLIB’s existence, it spent the majority of its time considering the merits of grant applications and approving the expenditure of funds for local government grants. Up to the late 1990’s the grant process was competitive, especially as applicants became more skillful in writing grant applications.

Continuation of the Board an issue for ten years
Over the past ten years, the WLIB has faced extinction in three of the five biennial budgets presented by the Governor. The ’95-’96 budget began this trend with the proposed elimination of all boards, councils and commissions attached to executive agencies within state government. Then Lt. Governor Scott McCallum conducted the review with the WLIB surviving the cut in late 1995.

The 1997-98 budget bill proposed to abolish the WLIB and merge its duties into the newly created Wisconsin Land Council. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance amended the Governor’s bill that year, keeping the two separate, but providing funding for staff in DOA that would support both entities. Also, the amendment established a 2003 sunset date for both.

The 2001-’02 biennial budget presented by Governor McCallum proposed to dissolve the WLIB and transfer its responsibilities to the DOA, to lift the 2003 sunset on both the WLIB and WLC, and to allocate some Land Program funds to comprehensive planning grants, and to begin funding a statewide computer-based means for sharing and using information. This was the computer-based system labeled “WLIS” (WI Land Information System). This budget also required the WLIB and WLC to produce a joint report in 2002, which required both bodies to analyze their functions and again consider the notion of merger.

All good things…
The 2003-’04 budget, the first under current Governor Jim Doyle, extended the sunset date for both the Board and the Council to 2005, and required another report to the Legislature, this one delivered in August 2004. In this report, the WLIB and WLC recommended that their sunset dates be honored, and that their duties be assigned to the DOA. This is the recommendation appearing in the Governor’s budget proposal this year, and presumably, will be signed into law later this summer.

During the WLIB’s sixteen years it had four chairs: Ben Niemann, John Laub, Les Van Horn, and Ted Koch; three permanent executive directors: Bill Holland, Doug King, and Mike Blaska, and numerous members appointed by the Governor. During the early 2000s, prolonged vacancies representing several sectors impaired the WLIB’s effectiveness and progress on important issues.

Just prior to July 1, the Board was waiting for updates to the third generation of county land information plans. The conclusion of this initiative will be handled by the DOA.

While we’ve reached the end of the road for the Board, I can say with confidence that the 16 years of hard work by the WLIB will have lasting effects well into the future.