Future of IRRRB, quarter-billion dollar trust fund to be decided in 2014

By KBJR News 1

January 30, 2014 Updated Jan 30, 2014 at 7:24 PM CDT

Eveleth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - Over a six month period in 2013, an Iron Range citizen–based coalition held 6 meetings, 26 stakeholder interviews, and a half–dozen online surveys to try to determine the future of evolving anomaly that is the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

The Board is technically a state agency, but every penny of the quarter billion in taconite tax dollars within their trust fund goes toward developing businesses within the Taconite Assistance Area.

Past Governors and legislators outside the TAA have tried many times to dip into the fund, which IRRR Board members say threatens the fund's sole purpose of supporting the Range's economy.

"One thing I'm sure of is if we keep the status quo in this fund," said IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich during Thursday's meeting, "it will eventually be raided."

One possible solution to keep the fund from being raided would be to pass a law eliminating outside sources' access to it.

But board members say that's not good enough.

"A future Governor and a future legislature could change that law," said Sertich.

To effectively distance the trust fund from the state, the task force developed two options.

Option A would re–form the IRRRB as a regional, public governmental entity, and would include new board responsibilities like setting the taconite production tax rate. The fund would stay a part of the board, as well.

Option B would keep the IRRRB a state agency, but would move the trust fund to a new, separate entity, like a non–profit. That fund would be governed by a separate board, and would have an IRRRB liason.

The latter plan gained the most support during Thursday's board meeting.

"Let the Governor appoint all the members—they have to be from the Taconite Relief Area—and let the Senate confirm them," said State Senator and Board member Tom Bakk during Thursday's hearing, "but that's a big change."

But there's never a guarantee that other factors, like the state–created Taconite Assistance Area, won't change in the future.

"[State] statute created the Taconite Relief Area, and they can un–create it," Sen. Bakk added. "There's just nothing we can do about it."

"I do hope that whatever we come out with is structured in a way that continues to maintain that almost century–old relationship between all these districts," said Rep. Jason Metsa (Dist 06B).

And while community input came in from across the board to shape these two options, IRRR Board members say the next few months of community input are equally as crucial in determining the future of a quarter of a billion dollars.

"Where's the transparency, and where's the accountability to the public," asked Sertich, "because ultimately these are public dollars whether we move them or not."

Board members say their goal is to have a final option determined, and the work finalized, by the IRRRB annual budget hearing, in June.

Billy Wagness