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St. Louis County Board discussing splitting county

HIBBING -- Is St. Louis County headed toward the improved delivery of services or dissension?

County commissioners, on a 4-3 vote Tuesday at Hibbing City Hall, moved forward a resolution that would lead to a study on the costs and benefits of subdividing the county.

A final vote on a study would come at an Aug. 7 meeting at the Duluth Courthouse.

Several commissioners say the study, which would examine service demands, costs and potential efficiencies within county departments, wouldn't necessarily mean that the county would be split.

"We are not in a hostile political environment," said Commissioner Steve Raukar of Kelly Lake, who offered the resolu-tion. "The goal is to do an objective analysis and keep this in a context to see if there's some way to improve service to the taxpayers."

However, other commissioners say having county administration develop such a study would be a waste of staff time and a potential source of friction within the county.

"I have to say this up front, that if this ship is moving out, it's not coming back," said Commissioner Bill Kron of Duluth. "I see this as a w.o.t., a waste of time, and as a w.g.c., a wild goose chase. We're sending them [administration] on an impos-sible mission."

The county, which bills itself as the largest east of the Mississippi River, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2006.

But its diversity between urban and rural areas - and long-running public turf disputes between northern and southern commissioners - has, over the years, led several commissioners to talk of splitting the county.

It's not yet determined how extensive a study would be or how costly it would be.

Raukar and Commissioners Keith Nelson of Fayal Township, Mike Forsman of Ely and Dennis Fink of Duluth voted in favor of a study. Kron and Commissioners Steve O'Neil and Peg Sweeney of Duluth voted against a study.

Fink said he has been a longtime proponent of a metropolitan-style government that would serve Duluth.

A countywide study, said Kron, could examine that option.

But Sweeney said officials from cities surrounding Duluth say they don't want to be a part of a metropolitan government.

Duluth, said Nelson, has plenty of its own problems to solve. "I frankly understand why communities around Duluth don't want to be part of a metropolitan form of government," he said. "It's like the old analogy I've heard: 'Why would you marry someone who has a gambling problem?' "

Forsman said a Koochiching County official has asked whether Forsman's district in the northern portion of the county would be interested in becoming a part of Koochiching County.

"He was serious," Forsman said. "It [Forsman's district] has a lot of resources in taconite and timber and it does look a lot like Koochiching County."

Raukar said he is asking commissioners to look at how to best deliver services, not to decide whether to split the county into two, three or four counties.

"I don't understand how looking at it is a negative," Raukar said. "It's about the best delivery of services."

County officials are already in the midst of forming a 2008 budget.

If given final approval by the board, a study could begin in the fall, said Dana Frey, county administrator.

But Kron, chairman of the board, says a study that would consider dividing the county would lead to problems.

"I'm telling you, it's going to cause a lot of trouble and dissension," Kron said.