Buena Vista using software to react to public works problems

By Olivia Hewitt 

Buena Vista is adopting new computer software that will allow the Public Works Department to track property boundaries, water lines and more, so city workers can respond quickly to problems.  

Zoning and Planning Director Tom Roberts asked the department to buy the software because it will allow users to track information on a map and analyze infrastructure based on location. GIS stands for geographic information systems.  

“It’s going to really help [Public Works] track what work they’re doing, what they’re fixing, and what they are repairing,” he said. “It’s also going to help us see visually where problems are located.” 

Roberts said he is working to update layers of water, sewer, parcels and address points to get an accurate picture of Buena Vista’s infrastructure.  

In the last six months, Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission has helped BV’s Public Works Department to create the parcel layer for GIS, which identifies owned versus unowned plots of land. The layer will provide a base for public works employees to then create outlines, subdivisions and property lines.  

“For planning, it’s going to make things a lot quicker and information a lot more readily available,” he said.  

‘Expensive but worth it’

A single staff account costs about $500 per year. Buena Vista is paying for one account for now.  

Buena Vista Public Works will be using the brand name GIS software ArcGIS, which is cloud-based. If one area of the department makes a change to the map, it will show up on all employees’ maps. ArcGIS was developed by Esri, also known as Environmental Systems Research Institute, which is based in Redlands, Calif. 

“It’s kind of expensive, but I think it’s worth it,” Roberts said.  

He said eventually property boundaries and property values on the parcel layer would be publicly available.  

“Most of them are not completed or not accurate,” he said. “You’re constantly adding information to it to make it more complete because conditions change.”  

Rachel Moore, director of economic development for Buena Vista, said GIS will be a useful tool to attract businesses to the city.  

“It will be really helpful in order to have all of that at our fingertips that we can use to kind of show businesses and groups coming into the area,” she said.  

Moore said potential businesses will be able to easily see the layout and infrastructure of the city.  

“It will be another tool in [our] tool belt,” she said.  

Constant updates to utility maps

Currently, there are no up-to-date paper maps that provide an accurate picture of water systems, sewer systems or pipelines. GIS will allow employees to constantly update, correct and enhance the layers on the map. 

“They’re going to be able to create their own data and manage it themselves,” GIS Specialist Hunter Joseph said. “They can update it. They can create their own maps, and that will just help them with their day-to-day operations and make better decisions,”  

Joseph has previously created map books for Buena Vista, which break down the city into grids showing the locations of utilities. She has also helped other counties create public web apps for their parcel data with the help of GIS. She said a public web app could be a possibility for Buena Vista down the road.  

“At first, [GIS] will be more of an internal use, them getting their data in shape,” Joseph said.  

The Buena Vista Department of Planning and Community Development has one license for the software. Eventually, all public works employees will have their own GIS account and software.  

As of now, only Roberts has access to the information. The rest of the employees don’t really need it right now because they are still in training, he said.  

He said within the next year, all planning and public works departments in BV will have access to GIS.  

In about two to five years, the Buena Vista Commissioner of the Revenue, who is responsible for administering taxes, and possibly the Buena Vista sheriff’s office and police department could use the program, Roberts said.  

He said he learned how to use the software in classes at Virginia Tech and when he interned in the planning department in Montgomery County, Md., before he started working for Buena Vista two years ago. 

“Once we get this parcel layer up and running,” Roberts said, “there’s a lot of information I can just pull up and in 30 seconds, where before it would’ve taken me five or 10 minutes to look.”