The chilling effect of IRRRB board structure


Even as multitudes turn their eyes toward economic diversification on the Iron Range this week, today we confront with one of the biggest barriers to breaking unsuccessful economic patterns here: a parochial establishment seemingly unable to handle dissent.

The Duluth News Tribune and others reported on Tuesday’s Cook County board meeting. At that meeting, County Commissioner Frank Moe proposed a resolution offering support for the region’s iron mining industry, but opposition to nonferrous sulfide rock mining in close proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The motion never got a second. But the reason why is the story.

Here’s an excerpt from John Myers’ DNT story:

Before that, however, the proposed resolution did spur a half-hour of testimony by county residents, including several business leaders who said Iron Range lawmakers told them that the resolution jeopardized Cook County’s position in the so-called Taconite Tax Assistance Area and Taconite Tax Relief Area.

Inclusion in those areas allows Cook County local governments and schools to receive a portion of the state’s per-ton tax on taconite produced. That money helps keep local property taxes down and helps pay for many public works and economic development projects, including projects by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

Dennis Rysdahl of Tofte, owner and developer of the Bluefin Bay resort complex, urged county commissioners to leave the resolution alone because any action would bring a reaction by mining supporters. Rysdahl said he had met several times on the copper mining issue with Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL Cook, who represents Cook County, and once with Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, who also represents Cook County.

“I really don’t think that a resolution by the County Board is going to change the outcome of the decision” on whether mines are built, Rysdahl said. But “I do feel like it does put our relationship with the IRRRB at risk. … I know that it puts our relationship with our (legislative) delegation at risk. I got an email from Tom Bakk yesterday, and he’s very concerned. He’s already hearing, again, what’s he’s heard many times before that Cook County doesn’t really belong in the Taconite Relief District, and if they’re going to take an action like this, they don’t deserve to continue to be involved.”

“I don’t know how likely that is for that to happen,” Rysdhal added. “But I do know that we’ve depended very heavily on Sen. Bakk for many, many things that have happened in the county, and we continue to depend on him.”

The discussion on the resolution occurred during the public open microphone portion of Tuesday’s board meeting in Grand Marais.

Rysdahl and others also noted that Bakk’s position as Senate Majority Leader has helped land large state- and IRRRB-funded projects for Cook County. While he said he personally opposed the PolyMet project, Rysdahl said Moe’s resolution “will damage our relationship with Sen. Bakk in ways that really will matter.”

In other words, we see direct evidence that Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), the DFL majority leader who represents this region, is using threats of dropping Cook County — which is part of his own district — from the Taconite Tax Relief Area to stifle an expression of opposition to his point of view.

This is just mind-numbing.

First of all, let’s dispense with the traditional fighting between pro- and anti-mining forces. Let’s just assume that some people support the new mining without reservation, others are open to it, others skeptical and others dead set against it. Let us also assume that the content of Moe’s resolution may or may not have passed without the intimidation factor. Let us further assume that well-documented opposition to copper-nickel mining in Cook County is equally as relevant as the well-documented support of copper-nickel mining in, say, Aurora or Hoyt Lakes.

There are two real issues here.

The first issue is that Tom Bakk, the most powerful politician on the Iron Range, is using his time and energy to squelch dissent. At best that seems like a waste of his important role.

The second issue is that this story shows exactly what’s really wrong with the IRRRB board structure. We went through all the problems from the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s report last month. Many failures of the IRRRB were attributed to decisions made by past commissioners. And while that’s fair criticism in many cases, the report did not dig into the other half of the problem: the way board members influence the outcome of IRRRB staff and commissioner decisions.

In this, the Cook County story is just one of many.

I’ll give you a personal example. For the last ten years I’ve strongly advocated for broadband internet access as a rural economic development strategy. Late last year the IRRRB considered matching state and private dollars for a major investment in broadband in Itasca County, where I live. So, I attended the critical IRRRB meeting as a supporter of the project and citizen. But I also was deathly afraid that my past criticism of the IRRRB and individual members of the board would become a factor in their decision. I don’t think it was, but it could have been.

At the same meeting, some beef between a couple board members and Magnetation caused that company’s mining rebate request to be tabled for no clearly stated reason.

This week I attended the MPR Ideas Forum for the Future of the Iron Range (which is broadcast today at 11 a.m., by the way). As I was drinking in the ocean of new ideas and excitement for economic diversification, I was also conscious that most speakers and audience members felt the need to state verbally that they supporting new mining, even if that fact was irrelevant to their idea.

Why? Consciously or not, we all know that if we need state funding or legislation to do our idea, we need the support of legislators who will use their roles on the IRRRB to enforce their political opinion about mining.

After the damaging OLA report, the IRRRB announced it would implement one change to bring the board structure into constitutional compliance. Board decisions will have to be ratified by the governor from now on.

What this Cook County story shows, however, is that the important decisions about the agency’s spending are still subject to parochial screening by a board that we clearly see has a political conflict of interest.

Again, set aside your feelings for or against mining. That issue will be decided on factors outlined in the permitting, financing and legal process (probably no time soon). I’m much more concerned that this structural problem with the IRRRB suppresses diversity of thought, which is another way of saying that it suppresses the economic diversification everyone wants.

We need new ideas regardless of who suggests them. It doesn’t matter whether a new entrepreneur is a Democrat or Republican, supports or opposes new mining, or eats their toast with the buttered side up or down. What matters is that they have the energy, desire and support to bring their business to Northern Minnesota.

We all benefit when the whole region and all its people share in success. No one says we can’t argue. But we can’t let animosity rule our strategy.


  1. Independant says

    Not the point you were trying to make but did Cook County ever have an operating iron mine? I thought they had some exploration there in the 1800’s but I don’t think they actually produced anything. Is it strange that they are a part of the IRRRB area at all or is it just me?

    • No, not an operating mine, though the Gunflint Range does have ore that has not been mined (to my recollection). As I recall, and again a more knowledgeable person could clarify, the inclusion of Cook County has more to do with the power plant at the southern edge of the county. Mining impact, not necessarily a mine, is what got you into the original TTRA.

    • Brett Ewald says

      Cook County, Minn. did have a short-lived iron mining episode west of Gunflint Lake during the last quarter of the 19th century. There were a series of iron mines and test pits in the vicinity of the present-day Kekekabic Trail in what is now the BWCAW, Superior National Forest.
      There was one load of iron ore hauled out before the mining community ceased and the workers moved on. The route was along the Port Arthur, Duluth, and Western Railway.
      The Gunflint Iron Range is considered by a very few to be Minnesota’s fourth Iron Range, after the Vermillion, Mesabi, and Cuyuna. (There is even a possible fifth Minnesota Iron Range, from bog iron mining during World War Two in SE Minn.)
      It is unknown to me if Gunflint iron mining factored into including Cook County

  2. Gray Camp says

    If the “real” purpose of the IRRRB is to diversify those economies that are dependent on mining and if your community is no longer reliant on the mining industry, it seems very questionable for you to be continuing to seek and receive IRRRB funds. On top of taking monies that could be used by these mining dependent communities, it is a double whammy to publically come out and try to stop new industry for those same communities (Cu/N mining). Obviously Bakk shouldn’t be threatening IRRRB banishment, for the reasons Aaron brings up, but at the same time Cook County is at least on some shaky moral ground here.

    • Is Ely still dependent on mining? Their mines closed decades ago. So did Bovey’s. I don’t think this is a moral question — it’s one of regional economic development strategy. Is Crosby still affected by the fact that until the “60s it was a mining town? You bet. The more we parse which parts of the Range are “pure” and which are half breed, the more we lose touch with the fact that this is a region with some similar problems across the board. Just my opinion.

      • Gray Camp says

        A community should know if they are dependent on mining. If a community isn’t they shouldn’t be applying for IRRRB funding.

        • The legal definition of the Iron Range is the Taconite Tax Relief Area. That area was formed based on a formula used in the 1970s to determine which school districts contained areas affected by iron mining. Towns inside that area are eligible to apply for funding. I’m not sure how much clearer this could get.

          • Gray Camp says

            The 1970s were a long time ago. Has anyone run the same formula more recently – at least for comparison to see where more help is needed than other places?

  3. Jane Anderson Hooper says

    If I recall correctly, the IRRRB funds were to be used to assist Range communities after mining and mining impact had ended, not necessarily during mining. IRRRB economic development funds would be available when mining funds had disappeared. Taconite Harbor operated from the ’50’s through the ’80’s and had a large economic impact on sparsely-populated Cook County. Under those criteria, Cook County is exactly where IRRRB funds should be invested. The same would be true for Ely, Crosby, Bovey and other Range towns that once did but no longer have a mining presence.

    • Gray Camp says

      I believe it is both during and after to aid those communities that are/were dependent on mining transition away from that mining dependence. Is Cook County still trying to recover/ transition their economy from Taconite Harbor closing 30 years ago? If they really are, I have no problem with them taking IRRRB funds. If they have already transitioned to a different economy, they shouldn’t be taking funds from their IRRRB partners.

      • So, Gray Camp, you think that it’s ok for Bakk to threaten taking away Cook County’s taconite tax relief funds?

        • I’ve already stated that Bakk shouldn’t be making threats. Reading the StarTrib article, Bakk said he didn’t make any threats – that he only mentioned it as a courtesy to try and calm a potential upswell to try and keep Cook County receiving IRRRB funds. It at least sounds better the way he stated it.

          • Personally, I don’t think Bakk should have emailed anything to anyone in Cook County. He should have just said it in public. Not being mean, or small-minded, or old … but if we’re really trying to question how “things are” and make improvements, why is it so bad that some people also question how this is set-up, too? It’s been 40+ years. Maybe it needs to be re-examined.

  4. This is a good, pertinent discussion on the IRRRB. The boundary issue, who’s in, who’s out, and for how long, is important. Equally important though is the make-up of the board.

    Currently the IRRRB board qualifications are: Are you a politician? Yes? – you’re qualified. This must be changed. Get the politicians off the board; they’re not qualified.

    A personnel criteria based on the mission of the board needs to be established and then hire people who are qualified. Whether it’s people from “The Range”, the cities, heck…even if they’re an illegal immigrant, if they’re highly qualified, hire ‘em.

    i.e. Melin, Metsa, Anzelc….all of them. They might be a great politicians and great people but they have zero experience in business development/investment or running a business. What the heck are they doing making multi-million dollar business investment decisions with other people’s money? That’s crazy!

    No wonder the IRRRB has a horrible track record.

  5. Let’s be careful not to lump all business owners together as being a very qualified and vastly experienced group to look up to. We were business owners. We know a lot of business owners. They are no different, no better, no worse than non-business owners at managing their businesses and finances wisely and successfully. Ironically, I have heard some business owners heatedly say government entities should be run more like businesses when they aren’t doing a very good job of running their own businesses.

  6. Kissa..I’m not saying it should be “business” owners on the board. It should be people who are knowledgeable, experienced, educated and have a winning track record of business success.

    We’re on the same page here. The hiring criteria needs to be well thought out. And being a politician is not a factor in the hiring criteria..In fact, I’d contend it’s a negative. I wouldn’t put an elected politician on the board.

  7. Is Cook County still trying to recover/ transition their economy from Taconite Harbor docks closing 30 years ago? I asked this question a couple days ago, and no one has come forward to say they haven’t, so I’d like to add a few additional things:
    1. The IRRRB should be lauding Cook County for their ability to diversify their economy and treating it like a major success that the IRRRB organization has aided. It is not that they have solved all of their problems, but that what happens with the mining industry isn’t one of them. It should almost be a shining light for other communities within the IRRRB.
    2. The IRRRB has publically come out in favor of non-ferrous mining as one of the top economic opportunities for the taconite relief region – this support has been both in writing and in investments. Cook County is part of the IRRRB and the IRRRB has reinserted tens of millions of dollars into the Cook County community over the years. Has Cook County even tried to handle their difference of opinion regarding Cu/N mining with the IRRRB internally? Bakk is getting a lot of back-lash for his role in trying to stop their resolution, and he definitely shouldn’t be using threats or intimidation, but it seems at least as wrong for Cook Country to have tried to grandstand a public resolution – contrary to their IRRRB organization – on the issue in the first place. (Gray Camp Commentary) It is really too bad that the threat of lawsuits has rendered us incapable of getting the people in the know together to really have an honest and civil public conversation on the topic.
    3. With the exception of Taconite Harbor Power Plant putting 150 MW of power onto the grid which could be used by the mines, Cook County has made little to no monetary contribution to the IRRRB funds over the past 30 years. Yet they’ve taken out tens of millions of dollars in distributions. When you take distributions from IRRRB funding, you are taking money that could be used by your partner communities in the IRRRB. Even as Iron Range struggles, there doesn’t seem to be any guilt by anyone in Cook County regarding this. They seem to feel they are both entitled to this money and able to do and say whatever they want – regardless of whether it financially harms their IRRRB partners. It is fairly obvious to most that they are a Lake Superior and wilderness based tourism economy now rather than a mining based economy, and their desire to make resolutions against non-ferrous mining is more related to their fear of anything that could potentially harm their tourism interests rather than what is in the best interest of economic development throughout the IRRRB region. (I’m sure they can try to argue that Cu/N mining is not in the best interest of anyone in the IRRRB regions, but that would probably be a hard sell) At one point in time the IRRRB predecessors were funded by both mining and forestry industries. Why is the mining industry the only one that currently funds the IRRRB? Why shouldn’t the tourism industry also contribute to this fund? Not that I’m necessarily in favor of a larger IRRRB organization, but it would be pretty simple to put a 1% tax on lodging and restaurants within the taconite relief area. Then we could see who wants free money and who wants to be a part of economically developing the region.
    4. MN Power has announced that Taconite Harbor Coal Fired Power Plant will be ending full time operations this year and tapering off to zero operations in 4 years. They say converting to natural gas doesn’t seem all that feasible due to the natural gas supply stopping 25 miles downshore and the rocky / pristine nature of the land they’d have to cross to run natural gas to the plant. This has the potential to eliminate 42 jobs from the Cook County region. Maybe some of these workers can transition into tourism industry jobs, and maybe some are close to retirement, but this presents a similar problem to the Iron Range where plants have shut down resulting in lay-offs.

    • Independant says

      Great points about the Cook County situation. I think you bring up some ideas that should be considered very seriously.

  8. It’s not what I proposed; it’s not what is needed..but certainly better than the current structure.

    Having politicians in charge of the IRRRB, from the Range or otherwise, is ludicrous. This will simply be politics are usual – “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. Get people in there who are qualified. And being a politician doesn’t make one qualified.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2016 8:32 am
    Bill Hanna Mesabi Daily News

    “Makeup of the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board would change dramatically if proposed legislation is approved.

    The GOP sponsor of House File 3925, Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, said the measure would provide more transparency, accountability and responsibility regarding grants and loans issued by the agency, without jeopardizing funding of schools and local governments.

    The bill would have the nine-person agency board to be comprised of six legislators without regional jurisdiction and three at-large citizen members from across the Iron Range”.

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