Minnesota’s St. Louis County is nearly 7,000 square miles of land and lakes, extending from Duluth in the south all the way north to the Canadian border. As the nation’s largest county east of the Mississippi River, it’s large enough to fit the entire states of Rhode Island and Delaware comfortably inside, with enough room for about half of Connecticut, too.
It’s so big, in fact, that roughly once a decade, somebody talks about breaking it into two, separating the Iron Range from the Duluth metro area. Each time the discussion comes up, it causes a kerfuffle.
This time is no different.
A recent move by County Commissioner Tom Rukavina asking state legislators to consider a bill to split the county triggered swift and strong reaction from his fellow board members, who voted 5-2 last week against supporting any legislation calling for a divide.
“It’s a significant distraction in a very, very busy year — a bonding year where we have a number of requests in front of the Legislature,” said Commissioner Keith Nelson, who authored the county resolution in the hopes of putting a quick stop to all the talk. “I’m pretty proud to have the biggest county in Minnesota in terms of area. We’re a very well-run county.”
Rukavina, who has long favored exploring a split, said he expects there won’t be a bill at the Capitol now. But that hasn’t stopped people from talking about it.
“I just wanted to show the people facts, that’s all I wanted to do,” Rukavina said. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. ... I’m a big enough person to say ‘Hey, I’m wrong.’ ”
Duplication of services
Splitting the county would directly contradict other proposals around the state that have favored combining many of Minnesota’s 87 counties to avoid duplication of services. One proposal years ago advocated for reducing the number of counties to 10.
In the meantime, some counties have started teaming up to administer some services such as public health and human services.
But in St. Louis County, where it takes more than 2 ½ hours to drive north to south, there are three county courthouses and 3,000 miles of roads to maintain. Those favoring a split argue that some workers are already spending too much time in the car, traveling as part of their jobs.
In the past, Rukavina has proposed drawing an east-west line at roughly the latitude of the township of Cotton and calling the northern portion “Iron Range County.” He cites tax disparities to defend his position.
His Fourth District covers approximately 60 percent of the county’s sparsely populated land, he said, — including a string of Iron Range towns and highly valued lakeside properties farther north — and accounts for more than 22 percent of the county property tax paid last year.
But the district, which has the same number of people as each of the other six districts in the county, is paying “one quarter of the bills,” he said. “That doesn’t seem right to me.”
Most county services, meanwhile, are centered in the Duluth area because that’s where most of the population lives.
The debate on the issue dates to at least 1915, according to northern Minnesota blogger Aaron Brown, who spotted documents about efforts back then to split the county while researching an upcoming book.
“Duluth held the population advantage. The Range felt it could survive on its mining revenue. A largely geographic divide on the issue created much fervor, but ultimately no action,” Brown wrote on his blog.
Although the northern half of the county has turned from its DFL roots into political “swing territory,” Brown said he thinks the effort to split it is based mostly on cultural attitudes. Some Iron Rangers are frustrated, believing Duluth leaders hold too much sway, he said.
“Rukavina is an Iron Range culture warrior,” Brown said. “He is enamored with this idea because it would give not only the political network but the social network of the Iron Range some power.”
Rukavina disputes that notion, saying it’s not about culture but about fairness. He said he has plenty of constituents who want to see a cost-benefit analysis done.
Kevin Pietrini, a retired Iron Range banker, said he’s heard rumblings about tax disparity within the county for years, “but you don’t really know. ... It would be nice to finally statistically put it to rest or move forward.”
Try, try again
The question has been examined before.
A 1974 study commissioned by the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation found that although the Range would benefit from a split in terms of revenue collections and disbursements, it would not be by much. But the study acknowledged that the great distances to the county seat of Duluth and other annoyances “may make partition advisable.”
Rukavina introduced a bill on the issue in 1997, when he was a DFL representative in the Legislature. At the time, the county administrator’s office estimated that the cost to split the county government in two would have been about $18 million, with $8 million to $13 million in annual recurring costs.
Ten years later, then-county administrator Dana Frey outlined what would need to be done to fairly measure the costs vs. the benefits of a split. Frey warned that it would take months and significant expense to complete.
Some commissioners this go-round say they’ve heard nothing from constituents about the issue, adding that they want to stick to the legislative priorities the board set out late last year.
“If we were to go north vs. south, I just don’t see the overlapping of county services helping either side. I think we’re pretty efficient at what we do,” said Commissioner Patrick Boyle, who represents one of three districts in Duluth.
The county was just issued an AA+ credit rating and has won state and national recognition for road projects, public safety and health and human services, according to the resolution that passed.
“Imagine the duplication of services that would be necessary to split this county apart,” said Nelson, who represents a district in the south central portion of the county. “Even spending money on a study at this point would seem to me to be a waste of resources.”
Nelson added that he thought Rukavina was bringing it up because he’s up for re-election this year.
“As long as we have commissioners who enjoy the circus, we likely will continue to see this from time to time,” Nelson said. “I have way too much work to do to be worrying about this.”
Rukavina said he simply wants all the information out there so constituents can be fully informed.
While there may be no bill at the Capitol this year, Rukavina pointed out that state statute allows for other ways to get things done, such as a petition for a vote.
By his reading of the statute: “If you get a quarter of the registered voters [on each side of the boundary] that voted in the last election, you can actually force a referendum on this,” he noted. “Maybe I’ll take up that effort. Who knows?”