North and South: St. Louis County debates split, again

The Associated Press reports that the St. Louis County Board is expected to oppose a proposal to divide into northern and southern counties.

According to the story, board chair Keith Nelson won’t support the measure, saying it’s not keeping with the board’s mission. He is one of three Iron Range area board members. Four county board districts are bunched around Duluth.

It’s not completely clear why this discussion is happening now, since there has not been any legislation proposed on the matter since 1996. But it was current county commissioner Tom Rukavina, then a State Representative, who wrote the bill.

Rukavina told media sources that no new bill has been written suggesting a county split, but argued that Duluth receives a disproportionate amount of Iron Range county mining tax revenue. The board is responding to some legislative discussions about putting together such a bill.

Without board support, no bill dividing the state’s largest geographic county holds much chance of passing into law. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to hear this discussion come back.

Why? Because this idea goes back much, much farther than 1996.

In my research of Hibbing Mayor Victor Power for my upcoming book, I found a number of clippings in Power’s daily journals about an effort to split the county in 1915. The arguments then were the same as now. 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.

It’s true that mining revenue generated on the Iron Range goes to all of St. Louis County, including Duluth. But if you want my opinion, a county divide designed to keep the mining revenue in a new northern county wouldn’t be as lucrative as some would hope. Duluth and the southern part of the county also generates far more property tax revenue than the north. I don’t have a balance sheet in front of me, but I’d wager that it all evens out.

Mining is an up-and-down business. The industry can practically furlough for a whole year sometimes. Then consider that a bad year in mining currently hurts St. Louis County. But then consider that such a year would probably *kill* a northern county. That’s arguably the reason this hasn’t happened in a 100 years of blathering on the topic, and probably never will.

Northern Minnesota is in this together. The Iron Range and Duluth might not always get along, but we are stuck together. Like Oscar and Felix. Ren and Stimpy. Squidward and Spongebob.



  1. So some unnamed person is working on a bill, but they won’t own up to it (or they are throwing something out to see if there is public support for it)? Seems like a weird non-story at this point in time.

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