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Offshoring Minnesota map work angers legislators

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER
  • Star Tribune
  • April 9, 2009 - 5:09 AM

A company hired by the government to create aerial maps of nine counties in southeast Minnesota is doing much of the technical work in India after laying off 10 employees in Maple Grove who had similar skills.

The offshore outsourcing by Aero-Metric Inc., based in Sheboygan, Wis., has angered state legislators who are proposing to spend an additional $5 million from the taxpayer-supported Clean Water Fund to map at least 41 other counties over the next three years.

"Minnesota money ought to be spent in Minnesota, particularly at a time when jobs are scarce," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who is chairwoman of an environmental finance oversight committee that considered the bill Tuesday.

But that may be impossible to guarantee. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, a sponsor of the measure, said he tried to add a no-outsourcing clause to his bill, but was advised by the House legal counsel that it would be unconstitutional.

The highly accurate, laser-based maps will aid in cleaning up waterways and responding to floods, supporters say. The maps show precise elevations, which can predict where runoff and erosion are dumping sediment into rivers. The maps also reveal drained wetlands and high-risk floodplains. The city of Fargo, N.D., which has been threatened this spring by runoff from the Red River, used data from an earlier mapping effort to create a Web flood-prediction tool for homeowners.

The taxpayer-funded technical work being done in India is part of an ongoing $821,000 project in southeast Minnesota to produce better maps mainly for flood protection. Aero-Metric crews flew over the nine counties last fall in airplanes equipped with Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) sensors. After that, the raw data needed to be processed extensively.

Miles Strain, the project manager for Aero-Metric, said a significant part of the $500,000 worth of technical work is being done in India, though he said he did not have the exact amount. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official estimated that about 20 percent of the entire budget is being spent offshore.

Aero-Metric has laid off 30 workers across the United States in the past year, about 9 percent of its workforce, according to Dun & Bradstreet. Strain said that 10 layoffs last year at a Maple Grove office were caused by the nation's poor economy, not to the decision to send work offshore. He said the DNR, which is overseeing the southeast contract, was aware that work would be done offshore when Aero-Metric's bid was submitted.

"We told them we could not do it for the price they had budgeted ... without sending it offshore," Strain said. "They said they couldn't stop us."

Tim Loesch, the GIS operations supervisor for DNR, said a scoring system used to rank the nine bids put Aero-Metric on top even though another U.S. company, Woolpert of Dayton, Ohio, had a lower overall bid after various optional tasks were added to the project.

Woolpert processes digital maps in Dayton, Denver and Orlando, and has concerns about security of such information overseas, said Bob Brinkman, a senior vice president. Digital maps allegedly were used to plan terrorist attacks last November in Mumbai, India.

"Far too much high-resolution data goes to foreign countries that do not have the best interests of the United States at heart," Brinkman said.

Loesch said he would like to have the technical work done in the United States but has no power to require it. He said the scoring system could be improved, and that he will consult with DNR's legal counsel about what, if anything, can be done to encourage future work to be done in the United States.

"I think the vendors have heard that loud and clear," he said.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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