Birders and Polymet converge over Sax-Zim Bog

by Richard Thomas

Ditches was the main topic at the St. Louis County Commissioners meeting Jan. 23 in Virginia. The Drainage Authority, which is the same as the county board, reopened a public hearing, tabled from Nov. 7, 2017. It all has to do with restoration of the Sax-Zim Bog, a popular destination for birding enthusiasts 40 miles north of Duluth. 

Minnesota has an estimated 20,000 miles of drainage ditches, built to turns wetlands in farmlands. A few years ago a private company named Ecosystem Investment Partners (EIP) acquired 36 square miles of the wetlands in Sax-Zim to restore it to its natural pre-settlement state. EIP sells credits to mining companies that are required to replace wetlands that will be destroyed in construction. Under a deal brokered in 2014 , St. Louis County traded the swampland for forest land. 

The bog became the largest wetland credit bank in the nation. But groups such as the Sierra Club and Save Our Sky Blue Waters initially opposed it, saying the area in question didn’t need the help and the project would only allow Polymet to get its credits so it could wreck other wetlands. Still there was no testimony in opposition when the county finally approved the deal. 

Last November EIP requested the county to abandon -- namely, let the company fill in -- parts of county ditches No. 1 and No. 6. The county at first approved, but then reopened the hearing when landowners near the ditches expressed concern that their lands have been flooding and filling in the ditches might make the problem worse. They expressed concerns again Jan. 23, and the Public Works department expressed the need for more time for a solution.

“I don’t want to have to do this public hearing again,” said Commissioner Keith Nelson, board chair.
Polymet still owns some land the ditches run through, land which it bought to create wetlands on its own, before it decided to go with the credits. So at the moment Polymet isn’t doing anything with it. That land might prove useful in the solution.
“We can sit down with them and see what their intentions are,” said Commissioner Tom Rukavina. “Maybe they’re happy to abandon the whole thing.”
Tax abatement in 
Hibbing

Acting on a request from the City of Hibbing, the St. Louis County Commissioners on Jan. 23 unanimously approved $350,000 in tax abatement financing to help L&M Radiator, Inc. expand. L&M Radiator, is building a new manufacturing building attached to its existing main building at 1414 E. 37th St. in Hibbing. The new building will add 80,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 20,000 square feet of office space.

The total project costs are estimated at $20.27 million. The City of Hibbing is pitching in $646,663 in tax abatements. L&M also has secured $431,000 from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, $170,000 from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and a $250,000 equipment loan from the Hibbing Economic Development Authority.

Tax abatements allow a company to pay reduced property taxes for a set amount of time. In Minnesota, the Legislature enabled abatements in 1997 and the county adopted a tax abatement policy in 2002. Abatements can be used for general economic development, as in the case of L&M, increasing the tax base or the number of jobs in the area.

The L&M abatements begin in 2020 and closes at the end of 2029. The combined city and county abatements over 10 years amount to $996,634.
The county waived its $300,000 per project limit and application fees. The project requires state prevailing wage rates. In the last year the company has hired approximately 65 people and currently has 20 open positions to fill.
A public hearing took place Jan. 23, but no one testified against the project.
L&M Radiator manufactures the Mesabi line of radiators for heavy equipment, mainly in mining. It’s a family-owned corporation with facilities in South Dakota, Iowa, Australia, Chile, Canada and Mexico.
In case you were wondering, L&M Radiator has no connection to L&M Fleet Supply. L&M Radiator was founded in 1957 by George Langer and Clay Murray in Hibbing. L&M Fleet Supply was founded in 1959 by James Luthen and Delbert Matteson in Grand Rapids.

Elected official salaries

In other business the county board established the 2019 minimum salary for county officials in elected positions: county attorney, $121,846; county auditor at $100,277; and county sheriff, $110,531.
Due to the number of years they have served, however, these officials already receive higher salaries: county attorney $159,207, county auditor $131,102 and county sheriff $144,518.