The Gage County Board of Supervisors delayed action to purchase an aerial imaging service with multiple applications during its regular meeting Wednesday.
Pictometry, a Rochester, N.Y.,-based company that uses a fleet of 73 airplanes to take aerial photographs of 1,200 counties in the U.S. and internationally, could be used for law enforcement, tax assessment and disaster mitigation, among other purposes.
Emergency Management Director Mark Meints, who spoke in support of the program Wednesday, said Gage County would benefit as a whole.
“I think it’s important that we understand there are multiple departments within the county that will utilize this system,” Meints said. “Even with some interest, we could put in a system when you’re doing valuations here on the board.”
Pictometry district manager Doug Tonnemacher said “99 percent” of Pictometry’s applications would be available by elected officials and county departments through the internet with a login and password, eliminating the need for extra personnel to maintain the program.
“We would host all that data on our servers,” he said.
The county board has discussed purchasing a flyover in conjunction with several other counties in southeast Nebraska, including Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy, for approximately $93,000.
Three years after the first flight, the county could option for another flight for approximately $121,000. Each flight would be paid for over a three-year period, and the county would not be obligated to purchase the second flight.
If the board waits too long to purchase the program, however, it would lose out on a $25,000 savings.
Despite the timeline for achieving a cost savings this fall and other departments’ vocal support for purchasing Pictometry, county board members remained skeptical about the need for the program.
Board chairman Rex Adams said Pictometry should have approached the county before its 2012-2013 budget was ratified by the board in September.
“If you knew you were coming, why are you coming when our budget is closed?” Adams asked Tonnemacher. “To me, I’m a no vote. This isn’t a budgeted item. Where is the money coming from? If you were aware of it, why didn’t you approach us in July where we could at least modify a budget change?”
Adams said he understands the benefits of the program and supports it, but would vote no against purchasing Pictometry until money was budgeted.
Tonnemacher said the project for a large-scale Nebraska flyover began in Omaha and spread to other counties, extending past the budget dates for several county governments. Regardless, he said Pictometry would try to fit Gage County into a flight taking place in the near future.
“We would love for Gage County to fly in fall 2012,” Tonnemacher said. If that happens, Gage County would receive its images in early 2013.
Adams also recommended the board postpone purchasing the program until it has a clearer picture of future costs related to litigation by the "Beatrice 6" against the county and employees of the county.
Board member Matt Bauman cited privacy concerns from citizens and referenced the novel “1984” by George Orwell, where the government is able to spy on its citizens through a series of cameras.
“I wish we had more time to talk to the public,” Bauman said. “Some of the concerns I’ve had from folks is that anytime a public body is using public funds, putting a camera in an airplane and flying over taking pictures, automatically some people stand back and say ‘OK Big Brother, what are you doing here?’”
If purchased, Pictometry would only be accessible by county offices and not the public, Bauman clarified. He also said the program is not intrusive, that the images will not identify people, license plates or be able to see into any homes. The information would also be protected from potential abuse.
“It’s not the public domain, so they can’t get on and use that,” he said.
Bauman also asked about obtaining permission from individual towns in Gage County about flying over and taking pictures of properties and if the board should work with village boards to secure permission.
Tonnemacher said Pictometry “is not a Big Brother tool.”
“This is a public safety, tax equalization tool at its core, it’s really nothing more than that,” he said.
Bauman also said the county needs to do a cost-benefit analysis of the program and that he supports its applications. He also said the board needs to discuss the program and its benefits more with its constituents.
“I think if we look at this as a six-year project and we can spread this out, I think it’s doable,” he said.
Tonnemacher said the board could work out a payment plan with Pictometry to begin paying for it in the next budget year.
Board member Terry Jurgens said he would not support “expanding government” in purchasing the program.
The board could take up the measure again at its next meeting on Nov. 14.
Reach Chris Dunker at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisDunkerDS.