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Current Kentucky budget proposal leaves out money for modern statewide mapping program

A screenshot of the KY From Above program, freely available online.
Courtesy KYFromAbove Explorer
The KY From Above statewide mapping initiative creates hyper-detailed maps of the state and makes them public for anyone to use freely. The project manager said Kentucky is the first state to produce this level of mapping.

Up-to-date digital maps are instrumental for everything from emergency management to routine property valuation. But the current legislative budget bill doesn’t include funding to continue an ongoing statewide mapping project.

In today’s digital age, detailed maps are used just about everywhere. Local governments use them to evaluate property taxes, keep track of streams and utility connections, manage emergency responses, plan trash routes and protect environmental resources. Private companies use them to engineer bridges, lay communications cables and to find appropriate sites for it all.

To support all those uses, Kentucky has a state-managed initiative called “KYFromAbove.” It’s been collecting detailed images and elevation data over tens of thousands of square miles. But it’s expensive: it relies on planes outfitted with advanced cameras and lasers to fly in a line-by-line pattern and capture data. The program then makes the data public for anyone to use.

Under the current operating budget, KYFromAbove aims to create a new detailed map of the state every three years. But the future of that goal is murky. The latest Republican-led budget bill doesn’t include any money for digital mapping. It’s in sharp contrast to a budget proposal from Gov. Andy Beshear that provided more than $5.6 million per year to keep maps up-to-date.

“Aerial surveying provides a very vital service in terms of understanding infrastructure, agricultural needs, and a whole host of other information that we can extract out and provide a little better quality of life,” budget review committee chair Rep. Ken Fleming of Louisville said in a 2023 committee hearing.

Fleming was formerly an executive for mapping technology companies that served business and political purposes.

In January, KYFromAbove project manager Kent Anness updated lawmakers in a House committee on the mapping program’s status and underscored the need for continued funding.

“We’re really hoping that [money] shows up in future iterations of the budget so we can complete the state [maps] and make sure it’s available to all of these people who’ve really bought into and supported this program,” Anness said.

He said the statewide program is especially important to rural local governments and others with smaller tax bases that can’t afford high resolution maps on their own.

“It really levels the playing field,” Anness said in a phone interview. “These ‘have nots’, these counties that I've talked about, it's going to empower them with more information than they've ever had access to before. It's our understanding that some of the [property valuation administrators] are already finding new properties to put on the tax roll.”

In addition to routine property valuation, rural counties who have been hit by floods and tornadoes in recent years have been able to use the detailed maps when working with federal agencies to determine the extent of damage.

In a committee presentation, Anness said the state already has an agreement to host dataat no cost, as long as it remains public — a cost savings of more than $250,000 a year. Since the state can have flights cross county boundaries, they can also create the detailed maps cheaper than if counties created them individually.

“It’s really a windfall for them… it’s a tremendous project for the state of Kentucky and all the state agencies to get these flyovers done," Tom Crawford, director of Kentucky’s state property valuation office said.

For example, the Louisville/Jefferson County Information Consortium in Jefferson County told Rep. Fleming they’d save somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 in their budget by having the state conduct mapping.

With the positive impact it creates across so many sectors, Anness said he couldn’t guess why KYFromAbove funding isn’t in the future budget bill.

“GIS mapping really isn't a partisan sort of issue,” Anness said. “I'm sure it's either just a fiscal matter that they're just still trying to get their ducks in a row and figure out if everybody's in support of this across the entire state.”

In a budget review committee, no lawmakers spoke in opposition to the cuts. During a phone interview, Fleming indicated that not all lawmakers are convinced the maps are a necessity.

“A couple people might think that this is really not a need… to me it comes down to [being] basically a need in order to provide our county PVA’s to do their work,” he said.

Fleming remains optimistic the program will be funded.

“It’s not a hard no or anything like that, it’s just, more of a can we do something else with the money?”

The budget bill has already passed the House and is waiting for a Senate committee to take up the issue.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.