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Planners pushing for a $4-million map

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


LECANTO -- A consultant has come up with a $4-million plan to create the ultimate map of Citrus County.

One click on this computerized map could tell almost anything about that spot: whether the land sits in a flood zone, how many neighboring homes have been sold in the last month, or how far away the nearest fire hydrant or middle school is.

The County Commission will hear Tuesday about the proposed Geographic Information System, or GIS, which would blend much of the information now scattered among different county departments and various maps.

If the commission decides to move forward with the plan, the county would build a computer database that included everything from evacuation routes to the location of water and sewer lines.

Having all of that information on one "supermap" would eliminate the need to consult multiple maps, as county staffers now do whenever they issue a building permit, plan road improvements or do many other tasks.

Assigning an address to a new home -- a task that now requires staffers to consult an index, find the spot on one of 2,000 detailed paper maps and determine the address by reading a grid -- could be done with the click of a mouse.

"This is a way to make all county agencies communicate better and make information available in a much more efficient way," said Kevin Smith, assistant director of the county's Community Development Division.

The County Commission will get the full pitch for GIS at its meeting in the Masonic Building in Inverness. The 1:30 p.m. presentation will be given by 3001 Inc., a Gainesville consulting firm that received $109,731 from the county to draft the GIS plan.

The consultant's inch-thick report outlines the steps the county should take to develop GIS over the next three to five years. The projected price tag: $4,005,456.

The hope, Smith said, is that the cost can be shared by the county, its five constitutional officers and the two cities, all of whom would benefit from the centralization of information.

But first the County Commission must decide whether to move forward with the plan.

Commissioners put the brakes on a similar plan a decade ago, when a consultant then estimated it would cost $10-million to develop GIS, Smith said.

Since then, the county's computer and data systems have improved, while the costs for data storage and microprocessor chips have dropped, he said.

"With the computer network we have now and the mapping information already available from other places, the picture is a lot different now," Smith said. "It's a much more feasible project."

In fact, some of the work has already been done. Property Appraiser Ron Schultz has created a limited GIS: a database that links specific information about a property, such as its address and assessed value, to a point on a map.

The information has been available for several years on the CD-ROM disc produced by Schultz's office. Just last week, Schultz added the parcel maps to each piece of land listed on the Property Appraiser's Web site.

But the system has its limitations. The Property Appraiser Office's maps are accurate enough to locate parcels, but are not detailed enough to assist engineers designing roads, Schultz said.

Schultz said he is open to providing his information as a starting point to the county through an interlocal agreement.

"I am a very strong believer in a countywide, multiagency GIS," Schultz said, noting that all neighboring counties either have, or are developing, such systems.

"The value of it is self-evident," he said. "Why we don't have it is very hard to explain."

The high cost has been the tough selling point in the past, Smith said, but this time the county is applying for grants to help defray the expense.

The cost to the County Commission would be even less if the School Board, the sheriff, or even private utility companies opted in and helped pay their share, he said.

Although the City of Inverness has not been formally approached by the county, City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said the city would consider joining any GIS effort. The city worked with Schultz as he developed his program.

"We cannot afford this alone; it's far too costly," DiGiovanni said. "We would most definitely want to piggyback on and work with a larger entity."

About 85 percent of the proposed GIS cost goes toward gathering maps, taking aerial photographs and entering information into the system. The proposal also calls for creating the position of GIS director, and hiring several GIS specialists to update information and help county staffers use the system.

Smith said he hopes commissioners decide Tuesday to move forward with the GIS plan, because the project would continue the county's efforts to make information more accessible and useful.

"Having this information at your fingertips would save a lot of work," he said.

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