The Blaine County commissioners want to the gauge the public’s appetite for picking up the eight-figure tab to bury Idaho Power’s state-approved redundant transmission line through the Wood River Valley. But first they need to drill down on how much their constituents ultimately need to pay.

On Tuesday, the board opted against holding an open house later this month in favor of scheduling a “meeting of the minds” with Idaho Power, members of the state Public Utilities Commission, and legal representatives for residents seeking to block the line, according to County Planner Allison Marks. The goal: to draft a more detailed estimate of the cost the county would incur to entrench the line over and above Idaho Power’s baseline design. The company’s quote comes to $32,889,227, including between $10 and $11 million in contingency.

“It’s astronomically high,” Marks said. “We think there’s some latitude to get that down. From Idaho Power’s perspective, the number’s pinned down. But that’s not a number we feel comfortable with. There are still a lot of moving parts.”

The county’s issue, though, is that it can’t get a more detailed estimate of the cost without having some money in hand to pay it. Idaho Power employed Power Engineers to come up with its rough estimate. The firm will design the underground line, too, trimming out some of that contingency—if the county can front 30 percent of bill.

The commissioners and county staff have been working separately on possible avenues to find funding, including levies, bonds and a relatively untested option called a local improvement district, or LID, Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said.

Greenberg is focusing on the third option, which taxes properties in the specific area that benefits from the project. They’re relatively untested on this scale, Marks said. Jurisdictions typically use LIDs to assess users for things such as sidewalks, rather than for multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects. Plus, under state code, parcels over 5 acres are exempt from paying the assessment, and a two-thirds opposition by remaining landowners nullifies the zone.

Greenberg is working with state Sen. Michelle Stennett and Rep. Sally Toone to change that in the Legislature this year, removing the exemption from law. The legislative session begins this week, and typically lasts through the winter.

The meeting discussed on Tuesday hasn’t been scheduled.

“We’ve been working at this for some time,” Greenberg said. “Idaho Power thinks we have to pay for it. We have a different opinion—so do people in this community. I’d like to see all of us at the same table, with everything in front of us. I think that’s our way forward from here.”

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