Range town mergers could protect jobs, services

Iron Range newsOne of the under-reported outcomes of last Tuesday’s off-year local elections was the overwhelming vote by the northern Minnesota communities of Carlton and Thomson to merge. In local media, this was portrayed as the simple matter of tiny Thomson’s overworked mayor and staff. In practice, however, these towns are providing a blueprint for many small towns in this region for continued local services amid shrinking population and budgets.

Iron Range cities, in particular, should be paying attention. Range town mergers could save jobs, services, and money — all of which are slipping away as the region readjusts to the 21st century.

In the deal approved Tuesday, Thomson retains its identity. It is essentially a recognized “neighborhood” within Carlton, which was already its economic and geographic big brother. Residents there get city services the same as Carlton residents, without having to pay more in taxes, which it would have had to do to keep services on its own.

Across the Mesabi Iron Range, small cities are facing a slow-moving glacier of crisis. The population of Range towns has dropped anywhere from 20-50 percent since 1980. Costs of services and supplies have caused many beloved parts of Range life to end — hacked library hours, limited recreation offerings, and, of course, higher taxes, despite the offset from Iron Range mining tax revenue. Some small towns have cut their police force in favor of county sheriff protection. Everybody and their brother is trying to figure out how to keep small fire departments alive.

So, what if? What if some of the nearby towns merged, or formed collective authorities to govern otherwise distinct towns?

The seeds are planted. Towns on the western Range, in Itasca County, are planning shared fire services. Discussions have expanded to possibly include more than that.

Think about all the nearby towns on the Range. Bovey and Coleraine. Taconite, Marble and Calumet. Nashwauk and Keewatin. Hibbing, Chisholm and Buhl. The Quad Cities of Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert and Mt. Iron. Biwabik, Aurora and Hoyt Lakes. The list goes on. Small regional police and fire services could provide similar protection with one administrative office — without having to subjugate to the county. Parks and Rec could provide more programming by cross-planning and promoting across nearby small towns.

It’s no coincidence that the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board has added language to its local grant process to reward communities for working together. While the iron mines are running hot, as they are now, it would behoove Range towns quite specifically to set aside the old, untenable parochial attitudes. It’s a simple proposition. If you think about the services provided to citizens, rather than the political situation of the moment, better solutions would come through cooperation. Like Carlton and Thomson, you could do this now in a way that benefits residents, rather than later after scorched-earth budget cuts and crisis.


  1. Jeremiah Johnson says

    I think another thing to do that could save money and resources on the Iron Range would be merging school districts. Because of the small size of schools you could cut down on administration costs by merging the districts.

  2. Robert Lindgren says

    Mergers, whether corporate, city or school districts, save money…and possibly services, they don’t save jobs. Eliminating jobs and becoming more productive is the objective. When you state “save jobs” as the first benefit you’re patronizing to your base Aaron. You’re on the right track but you can’t have your cake and eat It too.

  3. Jeremiah Johnson says

    Government is not a place that should create jobs. The private sector should. Merging would cost jobs but it would keep needed services active and going. Saving money and cutting down government costs will hopefully lead to the lowering of taxes that will put more money into the private sector to create more jobs. I’m all for merging.

  4. Robert Lindgren says

    You speak the truth Jeremiah. We’ll prevail in the long run but in the meantime, keep spreading the word..

  5. Dan Anderson says

    But— Are they going to change the name to Carl Thompson?

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