When Bennion residents go to the polls Tuesday to determine whether to form a city, the election results will be watched with keen interest beyond the borders of the 4.5-square-mile community of 20,000.

While the Bennion campaign has been low-key compared to some local incorporation drives, it may - regardless of outcome - provide the first piece of a longstanding puzzle: the fate of Salt Lake County's unincorporated areas.Some 280,000 county residents, more than one-third of the valley's population, live outside the boundaries of any city.

Those residents receive so-called municipal services - things normally provided by city governments, like garbage pickup, snow plowing and residential street pothole patching - from the county.

The unincorporated-area problem is simple: Fees and taxes collected from unincorporated-area residents to pay for municipal services are not growing as fast as the costs of providing services.

The resulting gap is causing the county to cut back the level of services it provides to unincorporated areas.

So far the cutbacks have not been noticeable. But if current trends continue - and five-year budget projections indicate they will - the public may soon see fewer county snowplows and more potholes.

"Something has to give," said Terry Holzworth, county public works director. "It's important that the county look for solutions, whatever they may be. I regard that as my key assignment."

There are many potential solutions, but finding a combination that will please most interested parties is difficult.

One idea discussed in the past but never agreed upon is the wall-to-wall cities concept. It would require all unincorporated areas either to form new cities or annex to existing cities.

New cities would likely, at least for their first few years, contract with the county or with a more established city to provide services.

Cities have an inherent advantage because of their authority to levy franchise taxes of up to 6 percent on utility bills, thus providing an additional source of service funding.

Counties do not have franchise taxing authority, and state legislators have made it clear they are not inclined to grant that power.

But wall-to-wall cities is problematic because not all Salt Lake County unincorporated areas have sufficient tax base to support creation of a new city.

And some unincorporated communities are reluctant to annex to existing cities because they fear loss of local identity and autonomy. Some unincorporated neighborhoods resist annexation simply because they don't like the way their city neighbors run city government.

There are other potential solutions:

-The so-called urban county concept, under which most services for all jurisdictions would be consolidated. An unlikely answer because of turf issues.

-The shared services plan, where over time cities and the county step up their level of cooperation and consolidation on certain municipal services. Already being used locally on a limited basis. Employed at a far more extensive level in some states.

-The township idea, in which unincorporated areas form townships protected from annexation. While not cities, the townships each would elect a board to advise county officials on budgets and other local issues of interest.

There is no obvious solution, but county officials agree something must be done soon. They've been concerned for years that one or two successful incorporation campaigns could set off a "land run."

Under that scenario, proposed cities and existing cities would fight over plum commercial areas to establish or add to their respective tax bases. Purely residential areas - which cost more to service and provide less in tax revenues - would be left out.

Although annexations and incorporations relieve the county from the primary responsibility of providing municipal services to those areas, they also increase pressure on the county's municipal service budget.

For example, the county collects $2.7 million in revenues from the Bennion area annually. The annual cost of providing services to the nearly 6,000 households is about $2.5 million.

That leaves $200,000 to subsidize service delivery to other unincorporated areas where revenues do not cover service costs. If Bennion incorporates, that $200,000 overage is lost, further pressuring the already-strained county municipal services budget.

That pattern would be repeated in any further incorporations or annexations because only areas that can at least break even on service costs are proposed for annexation or incorporation.

Holzworth suggests a commission comprising representatives of the county, cities, unincorporated areas and the various special service districts be set up - possibly under the auspices of the County Council of Governments - to begin discussion of the issues.

"We have to create some kind of forum to discuss where government is going," he said. "I'd like to think if we start now, that in a year we could have a solution. But it probably won't happen like that. Our legislative process moves slowly, but we have to find a better way."

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(Chart)

Bennion vote facts

Result: If proposal passes, Bennion will be the most densely populated city in Salt Lake County.

Boundary: Generally 54th and 66th South, and 13th and 40th West.

Pro incorporation arguments:

-Preservation of historical Bennion idnetity

-Better local representation

-Protection against annexation

Anti-incorporation arguments:

-Hefty tax hike needed to balance new city's budget

-Decrease in municipal service levels

-Homeowners will bear the burden of property-tax increases because 80 percent of land is residential

Voter information: Salt Lake County elections clerk, 468-3427.