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The buried power dilemma

A buried power line is preferable to one that is strung between 80-foot poles that mar the landscape. Few people would dispute this. If the burial could be done free of charge, Salt Lake County wouldn't have a controversy on its hands.

But it can't be done for free. It can't even be done cheaply. Because of that, and because of a law passed last year that unfairly puts the burden of paying for burial on residents and local governments, rather than on power companies, the county has a problem on its hands.Residents along Fort Union Boulevard want a new power line to be buried. County ordinance requires it to be buried. But is it right to raise the taxes of people in other, far-flung areas of the county to cover the costs? Of course not, unless they, too, have the promise of one day seeing their own lines buried.

This is a case where meddlesome government has needlessly complicated matters. Even if the residents didn't want the line buried, they would have to do it because of the county ordinance. That is an unfair expense to impose on people unwillingly. And the state law does nothing other than ensure the process will be as expensive as possible.

County commissioners have decided to put the Fort Union question to a vote in November. Unincorporated residents valleywide will decide whether they all should pay for the buried lines. A better solution would be for government to back off. State lawmakers either should do away with their law completely or change it so that power companies bear the costs, and the county should stop requiring burial unless it can extend the requirement to existing lines, as well.

Of course, regardless of whether it comes through taxes or power bills, the same folks would end up paying for this service. As with county government, the power company would have to decide whether to pass the costs on to its customers generally or to only those customers affected by the burial. The difference is that the power companies, were they responsible for costs, would make sure the lines were buried as economically as possible. They would have an inherent interest in doing so and the expertise to make it happen.

Any time lawmakers require one party to pay and another party to set the cost, they are asking for trouble, and that should be considered the key point in this debate. It makes little sense to ask voters to decide something that came about because of a bad law.

In reality, this is an issue that doesn't deserve such a spotlight. The issue of whether to bury power lines is one of aesthetics. No study has ever shown a conclusive link between high-voltage power lines and disease, despite the worries of many who live near the lines. No legitimate public welfare issue exists here.

If the county wants unsightly lines removed, it ought to bury them all. If only certain residents want lines buried, they ought to bear the costs. But make it a matter of choice and don't make taxpayers pay.