The state office that manages, updates and coordinates digital maps and other geospatial data and services lost its funding in the recent budget-making process, leaving the LePage administration and lawmakers squabbling over who is at fault and scrambling to rectify the oversight.

The accidental defunding of the Maine Office of Geographical Information Systems, or MEGIS, threatens services widely used by towns and cities, other state agencies, real estate professionals, developers, conservationists, foresters, planners and surveyors. The data produced by the office helps power Google Maps, Google Earth and other familiar consumer products.

Legislative leaders learned of the situation July 28, alerted by a letter from Jon Giles, a land surveyor who chairs a related body, the Maine Library of Geographic Information, asking them to take action to restore funding.

“The worst-case scenario would be increasingly out-of-date data, which would impact everything from town web-mapping and municipal tax maps to 911 addressing support systems,” Giles said. “MEGIS’ services and data are essential to Maine’s economy and citizens.”

Exactly what happened is in dispute.

Administration officials said the defunding of the office, which has an annual budget of about $1.1 million, was accidental, an unintended consequence of Gov. Paul LePage’s failed effort to create a new Department of Technology Services.

MEGIS has been funded via budget items at other state agencies that use its services. But under the governor’s budget request, the agency would have received general fund support via the new department, so state agencies were told not to include their usual MEGIS service fee requests in their budgets.

But the budget passed by legislators July 3 to end the brief state government shutdown did not create the new department or restore the service fee funding eliminated by each agency, according to an Aug. 2 email sent to House Speaker Sara Gideon’s chief budget aide by David Heidrich Jr., communications director at the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which oversees MEGIS.

“Since the budget passed, GIS has been operating on funds that were carried forward from the previous fiscal year,” Heidrich said in the email. He did not respond to an interview request.

TRYING TO PINPOINT PROBLEM

But the House co-chair of the legislature’s appropriations committee, Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, says the administration’s explanation doesn’t make sense. The funds to support the office are still there, part of a $48 million fund in the new budget that supports the state’s information services.

“For them to say it’s been defunded, I don’t think is accurate at all,” Gattine said. “What they are saying is the way they collect the money to put in the fund is to charge all the state agencies back, and they made a big mistake to tell the agencies not to build that into their budget. But the funding for the program still exists.”

Gattine said he has tried repeatedly this week to contact senior administration officials to determine what is going on, hoping to be able to fix the problem before the Legislature adjourned Wednesday night. His efforts were unsuccessful, and Gattine said he was told by LePage aide Aaron Chadbourne on Thursday that he would have to make his request for information to the governor himself, in writing.

“It seems to me that this is all unnecessary,” Gattine said. “The way they have characterized it in the community in the last few days has caused a lot of stress.”

Joseph Young, administrative director for MEGIS, said in an email to stakeholders Thursday that state funds were being provided temporarily until a solution could be found.

“Fortunately, because of the outpouring of support from the GIS community, leadership has become more acutely aware of the critical need for GIS services and is working to find a solution,” Young wrote. “I have been assured that a solution will be found and MEGIS will continue to provide services.”

DIGITAL DATA HAS MANY USES

MEGIS maintains an extensive online digital library of geospatial data used regularly by state agencies, private companies and academics, including overlays of everything from the locations of deer wintering areas and floodplains to cell towers, seismic faults, soil types and parcel boundaries.

“These layers can be used by all sorts of people in their work,” said William Hanson, a Bangor real estate attorney who uses the office’s data to familiarize himself with properties his clients are looking to purchase. “People say they can just go to Google Earth, but in a lot of instances, if others like MEGIS aren’t producing this information for Google, you are not going to get it that way.”

Two state senators who sit on committees with oversight responsibilities for MEGIS, Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and James Hamper, R-Oxford, declined to comment, saying they didn’t have enough information.

Giles said he knows legislators and administration officials are aware of the problem, but that he hasn’t heard of a specific fix.

“My understanding is that it’s everything from somehow finding a way to take care of it now, to maybe taking care of it in the supplemental budget process in the coming months,” he said. “I know a lot of folks in Maine’s geospatial community have reached out to their elected officials to alert them to the seriousness of this.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]