An “unprecedented” focus on education marks the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board’s new budget, which was passed unanimously at a Monday meeting in Eveleth, Minn.
About two-thirds of the $41 million plan will go toward development projects, programs and education. That includes $7.2 million in a new fund for Iron Range schools that was etched into the tax bill during the last legislative session.
“It’s the first time in probably 100 years that this big of a piece of money generated by the mining companies … is being directed toward E-12 education,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, one of the nine northeastern Minnesota legislators who make up the board.
The taconite production taxes that fuel the state agency are “relatively stable,” Commissioner Tony Sertich told the board. The budget projects those taxes — which mining companies pay in lieu of property taxes — to total $21.3 million in fiscal year 2015, compared with $21.4 million in 2014.
“Currently the mines are producing at almost full capacity,” Sertich said by phone last week. “It’s a robust budget.”
The plan puts $9.1 million toward projects meant to attract new investments in the state’s northeast region and $5.6 million for infrastructure grants. It also allocates $7.9 million to run Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort.
Soon, that resort will get a major upgrade.
The board approved its slice of a new, $9.9 million event center at Giants Ridge, the Biwabik resort that attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year. The two-story, four-season event center will replace an outdated, inefficient chalet, Sertich said. “It’s time for a new facility.”
The agency’s $6.2 million contribution toward the center will come from its $140 million Douglas J. Johnson Fund — and will be paid back in a few years, Sertich said. The agency nabbed the other $3.8 million from the Legislature. It was the first time the IRRRB had requested state funding.
The fund for K-12 education, too, is new. From time to time, the agency has supported schools’ construction work, Sertich said by phone, “but it’s been on a case-by-case basis. We’ve never had a dedicated stream of funding.”
Because the mining companies don’t pay property taxes, they don’t contribute to school districts’ levies for capital projects. “There’s no way for them to contribute like other businesses or property owners,” Sertich said. Until now.
The law establishing the fund says that “expenditures from this account shall be made only to … assist school districts with the payment of bonds that were issued for qualified school projects” but then gets broader, adding, “or for any other disbursement as approved by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.”
The impetus behind the education fund was the proposal — later quashed — to build a single high school for the Iron Range school districts of Mountain Iron-Buhl, Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia. But the final language was “much broader than that,” Sertich said.
At its next meeting, the board will discuss how that money ought to be spent, he said. “That’s our next step — working with the board itself to design those guidelines.”