Three months after resolving to bury a state-ordered redundant transmission line through the Wood River Valley, the Blaine County commissioners began marshalling manpower this week to deal with sky-high cost of the underground solution.
The board met Tuesday to weigh financing options, and to consider enlisting outside help on the $35 million question, per Idaho Power’s valuation of the project. So far, the company has taken a hands-off approach to the county’s funding push, though it has set a 2022 in-service deadline for the new line. With limited options available—all requiring public votes—that’s coming up quickly on county staff.
“It doesn’t appear to me that we’re going to get this on the next ballot,” board Chairman Jacob Greenberg said. “Idaho Power might be driving this, and we’re moving at the speed of government. We want to move forward, but we’re trying to do this in a way that makes sense to our constituents.”
A group of officials including the county treasurer, assessor and clerk plan to meet this week to hash out different options, which include levies, bonds and local improvement districts—or some combination of the three.
Each has its own issues. Permanent levies aren’t designed for specific projects, meaning the county would likely have to pitch the full cost in a two-year override levy—with a sizable bill—to voters, according to County Clerk JoLynn Drage. Bonds are more complex and time-consuming to create and market—plus there’s the unusual step of using county debt to finance something it won’t actually own, County Administrator Derek Voss said. Local improvement districts, which tax properties in the specific area that benefits from the project, are relatively untested on this scale, County Planner Allison Marks said earlier this year. They’re more commonly used for, say, sidewalks than for multi-million-dollar infrastructure pro-jects, and property owners need to overwhelmingly opt in for them to take effect.
“We’ve got the cart way out before the horse,” Drage said. “We’re going to need a committee to look at this—and, if we’re lucky, we may have the information together by the May ballot.”
Added Voss: “We’ve got a lot of questions, and few answers.”
In the meantime, the commissioners are still holding out hope that Idaho Power might foot some of the bill by assessing its ratepayers, as it agreed to do from the Ketchum city limits near Elkhorn Road to the final substation on Sun Valley Road. (That portion has no suitable above-ground option, the company said.) The state Public Utilities Commission, which authorized the redundant line in the first place, would have to decide on that.
And, there’s a chance that the price could go down. Idaho Power is currently working with Power Engineers to update its estimates, County Land Use Director Tom Bergin said. At this point in the process, the $35 million figure is nearly two years old.
The county needs to see for itself, Greenberg said.
“I don’t see us as adversarial, but we’re on two different sides,” he said of Idaho Power. “We’re required to do our own due diligence. We can’t rely on someone to hand us a number, and say ‘That’s it.’
“Purportedly, a majority of people want it undergrounded. Now, do they want to pay for it? That’s another question, because it’s a substantial amount of money. And if they don’t, we’re going to have to suffer with overhead lines.”
The commissioners hope to get Idaho Power back to the Old County Courthouse as soon as next week to hear any updates, and clarify the company’s timeline for billing and building.
“The county’s trying to solve a problem here,” Voss said. “We have a limited opportunity to do something—there’s almost no time. Failure means the lines are going above ground—because either way, in 2022, the light switch goes on.”