(The Havre Herald) A Havre activist is organizing a movement intended to “level the playing field” for family farms by calling for a boycott of Hutterite goods. Former state legislator Bob Sivertsen says the Hutterite communal lifestyle gives them unfair advantages over the average non-communal farmer.

Questions concerning the Hutterites and how much they pay in taxes came to the surface after Sivertsen claimed the colonies have built-in advantages because of religious exemptions and their “socialist-communal” system.

The Herald contacted the Department of Revenue, Office of Public Instruction and county officials for available tax information on Hutterite colonies.

The numbers show that local Hutterite colonies are among the biggest real property taxpayers on the Hi-Line.

And like most farmers, they pay taxes on farm equipment and livestock.

In some school districts, Hutterite colonies are the largest real property taxpayers and may be the only reason small schools remain open, the Office of Public Instruction has concluded.

But the amount of federal and state income taxes the colonies and their residents pay is unclear.

At the Thursday meeting, several people said Hutterite colonies divide up the profits equally among every man, woman and child. As a result, corporation taxes aren’t paid and the income per person is so low that income taxes are low or non-existent.

But income tax information, unlike property tax figures, is not public information.

“Information on business and individual income taxpayers is by law confidential,” said Sanjay Talwani, Montana Department of Revenue public information officer.

Questions about taxes were raised at Sivertsen’s meeting Thursday night.

A loosely estimated 30 people, many of them area farmers, attended the on-again, off-again meeting to discuss boycotting Hutterite colonies’ produce at the Farmers Market and local supermarkets. Some spoke aloud, indicating they believed something needed to be done about the allegedly unfair advantage Hutterite colonies have.

Two women voiced contrary opinions, saying there is nothing illegal about how Hutterite colonies operate and that it wasn’t a good move to host an informational meeting without bringing critical information.

No one from any Hutterite colonies attended the meeting.

Initially, the meeting was supposed to be held at the Elks Club and then the Chuck Wagon at the Great Northern Fairgrounds. Both were canceled and Sivertsen was able to book the Quality Inn. He indicated that, too, will be an issue he’ll pursue in the future, referring to his right to assemble in the Chuck Wagon, which is on county property but isn’t owned by the county.

While the meeting was called to talk about a boycott, it turned largely into a session aimed at figuring out just how the Hutterite communities operate and what tax breaks they enjoy. People agreed that legislation at the state and especially the federal level was needed, but it wasn’t certain just how laws should be changed, prompting some to agree that’s part of the reason for meeting, figuring out what to address.

After the 90-minute meeting, no decisions were made about a boycott, but Sivertsen said he would have another meeting in the fall, perhaps in Fort Benton or Great Falls.

Montana Office of Public Instruction map of Hutterite colonies, 2010 (the most recent available from OPI)
Montana Office of Public Instruction map of Hutterite colonies, 2010 (the most recent available from OPI)

On Friday morning, Bryce VanOverbeke, Hi-Line regional manager for the Montana Department of Revenue, said Hutterites, like all farmers, pay taxes on property like moveable equipment, and on livestock. Their payments are audited, he said.

A check of county records Friday morning showed that Hutterite colonies were among the largest real property taxpayers on the Hi-Line.

For instance, in Blaine County and in Liberty County, three of the five top real property taxpayers were colonies. Real property excludes utility and railroad companies.

The amount colonies paid in 2018:

Blaine County

  1. Columbia Grain: $133,733.95
  2. Heartland Colony Inc.: $131,296.55
  3. S Bar B Ranch: $66,240.03
  4. North Harlem Hutterian Brethren Inc.: $63,385.49
  5. Turner Hutterian Brethren Inc.: $56,604.06.

Liberty County

  1. EGT LLC: $136,976.97
  2. Gavilon Grain, LLC: $126,131.93
  3. Eagle Creek Colony: $91,275.65
  4. Riverview Colony: $62,434.34
  5. Sage Creek Colony:$57,888.77

Hill County figures were compiled by a slightly different method and are not directly comparable to Blaine and Liberty counties. These figures include mobile home, personal property and real property, but again, not taxes paid by utilities and railroads.

Hill County

  1. Duck Inn: $132,956,83
  2. Boothill Properties: $127,060.87
  3. Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust: $121,803.69
  4. Harvest State Cooperatives: $115,265.41
  5. Hilldale Colony: $111,814.32
  6. SN Properties Funding IV: $104,577.52
  7. Cool Spring Colony: 97,098.32
  8. East End Colony: $92,259.29
  9. Gildford Hutterian Brethren Inc.: $86,399.17
  10. Northern Border Development: $84,709.88

Exemptions for colonies are possible on schools, parsonages and churches, but a list of tax-exempt properties in Hill and Blaine counties from the Department of Revenue shows that while most churches and religious schools have been granted tax-exempt status, colony churches, schools and parsonages are not on the list.

Several people at the meeting complained that Hutterites, because of the way their communities are set up, have lower personal income levels. This enables them to qualify for Medicaid Expansion.

State Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester, who attended the meeting, afterward told Herald reporters that Hutterite leaders agreed to pay the state 10 percent of the cost of the Medicaid Expansion. In effect, he said, the Hutterites pay their share of the Medicaid Expansion cost.

“Otherwise, the extension of Medicaid Expansion might not have passed the Legislature,” said Tempel, whose vote was pivotal in winning approval of the extension in the state Senate.

At the meeting, Sivertsen said he has received more than 80 phone messages in recent weeks from Hutterites throughout the United States, mostly negative and threatening. But he said he is conducting a good dialogue with two Hutterites.

He said he was not afraid of the negative reaction.

“But that’s OK, this isn’t my first rodeo,” he said.

Joe Waldner, secretary-treasurer of the Eastend Hutterite community, said Tuesday he had “better things to do than waste my time with Bob Sivertsen.”

Sivertsen said he started his fight against the Hutterite system when he was in the Montana House in 1975 and received no support.

“I got beat up, but that’s OK,” he said. “I learned a lesson.”