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St. Louis County board opposes county split, again

The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday passed an advisory resolution against proposed legislation that doesn't exist yet.

County commissioners, meeting in Hermantown as the committee of the whole, voted 5-2 to reiterate their support for a unified St. Louis County, going on record that any effort to split the county is not on their wish list.

But one of the two who voted against it, Commissioner Tom Rukavina of Pike Township, said he may continue to push the idea on his own.

Rukavina conceded Tuesday that he rekindled the centurylong county split debate by asking two Iron Range DFL lawmakers — Sen. Dave Tomassoni and Rep. Jason Metsa — to consider introducing bills this year allowing St. Louis County residents to vote on whether to split the county in half. (The Minnesota Legislature goes back in session Feb. 20; no new bills have been introduced yet.)

The split would separate the Iron Range and northern reaches of the county from Duluth and southern townships, something Rukavina has been talking about and sometimes promoting for 25 years, since his days serving in the state House.

"I think we should call it Iron County," Rukavina said of the new, northern entity. He said his reasons are multitude but focus on how property wealth in the north helps pay for what he says are better services in the south.

But it's clear Rukavina also is miffed over a growing movement in the Duluth area opposing proposed copper mining on the north slope of the Iron Range. While Duluth and the Range have always been linked by railroads and iron ore interests, more southern county residents have been willing to oppose the state's first copper-mine proposals as an environmental risk not worth taking.

The Range-Duluth rift has even involved beer, with some Rangers like Rukavina boycotting Duluth-based Bent Paddle Brewing Co. and other Duluth-area businesses that formed a group opposing copper mining.

But the idea of splitting St. Louis County is far older than even Rukavina. County staff found records of requests for a split county dating back to 1894, when Ely-area officials apparently were tired of having to go to Duluth by horse, train or foot to conduct business at the county seat.

Efforts have come and gone over the decades, including bills in the 1970s, feasibility studies and a bill introduced by Rukavina in 1997 that actually passed the state House but failed to advance in the Senate. (The county board passed a resolution against Rukavina's idea then, too.)

St. Louis County is the largest county in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and by far the largest in Minnesota, stretching from Duluth to the Canadian border — 6,860 square miles, 130 miles north to south and 60 miles across. While other giant counties in Minnesota split a century or more ago (Cook County split from Lake, Koochiching from Itasca and Lake of the Woods from Beltrami) St. Louis County has held together.

Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township accused Rukavina of going behind other commissioners' backs to promote the idea in St. Paul without board support. But Rukavina said it's time for county residents to vote on the idea of a split, something he said has never been allowed.

"I think we should listen to our citizens," Rukavina said, noting the county has been around for 162 years. Rukavina called for a county study of the costs and benefits of splitting the county in half. "Show me I'm wrong. Let's look at the facts. Then let's let the people decide."

Commissioner Mike Jugovich of Chisholm said he didn't necessarily support splitting the county, saying he believed "we're stronger together," but that he wanted to see a study on the costs and benefits. He joined Rukavina voting against the resolution.

Nelson, Pete Stauber of Hermantown, Patrick Boyle of eastern Duluth, Frank Jewell of central Duluth and Beth Olson of western Duluth all voted for the resolution.

Olson called the entire debate "a little bit of overreaction to some statements being made" but that she supported the resolution to send a clear message to St. Paul that the majority of the board opposed the split idea.

Even without legislative action county residents can petition for a vote on a county split with 28,000 signatures, County Attorney Mark Rubin noted.

The full county board is likely to approve the committee of the whole vote at its Feb. 27 meeting at the Alborn Community Center.

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