An activist in Havre is bringing long-simmering criticism about Hutterites to the surface there.
The Hutterites are a communal, agrarian religious sect that some local farmers say have unfair tax advantages over other Montana family farms.
Hutterites and their supporters counter that they pay their fair share. Some also believe the accusations are discriminatory.
Havre Herald Editor-in-Chief Paul Dragu and reporter John Kelleher are covering the story. MTPR’s Edward O’Brien recently spoke with Dragu.
Dragu: The Hutterites are a communal group, they speak a distinct German dialect and they came to North America somewhere around in the late eighteen hundreds, of course from Europe.
Now, they've settled mostly, as far as the U.S., in Montana and South Dakota and in Canada, in three provinces. Here in Hill County, we see them especially at our farmers markets and the little craft shows.
O’Brien: Overall, how would you characterize the interactions, the relationships between the Hutterites and their non-colony neighbors, if that makes any sense? Is there a lot of day-to-day tension, or does everyone, do you think, basically play nicely together?
Dragu: Yeah, I mean it's a pretty amicable relationship. But of course, like with anybody else, as it became apparent during the meeting, there is also complaints.
O’Brien: When you're talking about a recent meeting, this was initiated by a Havre gentleman named Bob Siversten, correct?
Dragu: Correct. Mr. Siversten is a longtime Hiliner. Mr. Siversten has been a Montana state representative in, I believe the late 70s up until the early 80s, and Mr. Siversten is very passionate about the Hi Line and especially his home, Havre, in the surrounding area.
O’Brien: And most recently, he's been calling for a boycott of Hutterite goods, as you and John Kelleher report, to level the playing field, a quote, level the playing field. What does that mean in this case?
Dragu: The communal lifestyle, which he also refers to as basically a socialist-like model, apparently gives Hutterites advantages over the small, non-communal farmer. He suspects there are tax breaks that they get because of how they live. And he also suspects they don't pay income taxes.
Another one is that they are apparently able to bid much higher for land and outbid other farmers and things like that. Basically, their lifestyle gives them great advantages over regular farmers.
O’Brien: Well, I know the Havre Herald did a little digging into his concerns and claims, maybe starting with property taxes. What did you all find?
Dragu: Well, we found out that Hutterite colonies are among the top property tax payers in our county, Hill County being, and then the neighboring counties. What we found was that they are consistently in the top bracket for property taxes that they pay.
O’Brien: And then what do critics of the Hutterites, then, have to say about income taxes that the colonies pay?
Dragu: There's a lot of ambiguity about whether they pay income taxes. One thing that a lot of people are saying, or they believe maybe the truth is, that they don't pay income taxes.
Hutterites, it's no secret that they don't pay. They don't pay wages, but that's because of their lifestyle, and apparently because they make available everything anyone needs.
Now, what we were able to find out as far as income taxes and what they pay was simply that that's confidential. We're not legally allowed to have it.
O’Brien: How does Medicaid expansion of all things fit into this story?
Dragu: Well, apparently they paid into it. I believe it was 10 percent. At the meeting Thursday, Senator Russ Temple, who obviously played a pivotal role in Medicaid expansion this past legislation, he said that, you know, that was part of the deal. It sounded like it was a pretty big part of getting Medicaid expansion.
O’Brien: This meeting that you all reported on and covered, this was held last Thursday?
Dragu: Yes, this past Thursday. The turnout was pretty big, considering the venue had been changed and I believe by the time it was announced where it would be, it was probably only three or four hours before.
People generally just had questions. They had more questions than could be answered. They really just wanted to know what these advantages were. You know, what the tax perks were. Again, the taxes were a great part of that.
And also, you know, as Mr. Siversten has said, he reiterated that the system is basically unfair. He did mention assimilation: that we need to have Hutterites assimilated. And he also mentioned that, you know, sometimes, why some don't leave and they, you know, he insinuated that there's a lot that are unhappy simply because it's hard to acclimate, to come out of that and find support.
And so, there was another thing he had mentioned that, you know, would be good to build support for people who are interested in building a life outside the colonies. Nothing to say that, you know, we need to pass laws or get the authorities involved and make them assimilate. No, nothing like that.
O’Brien: Well, when you and John speak with colony reps, what are they saying about all this?
Dragu: John did a lot of the talking to, I believe it was Joe Waldner. He was a representative or a bishop of one of the colonies, and he seemed very frustrated. I think he called it a bunch of hooey. I think that was his response to, “What do you think about the accusation that you guys have a socialist system?”
O’Brien: Is anyone saying that this is driven by some form of bigotry?
Dragu: One of the reasons one of the venues was cancelled was because somebody complained, and they said this was bigotry, and Siversten did address that. From what we understand, what we hear, what he says, it's about the system, not the people and not the language they speak.
O’Brien: So, is there going to be a local boycott, then?
Dragu: Who knows. July 6, the Saturday market is starting. Lots of Hutterites bring their produce there. Who knows if there will be. Again, there seems to be a lot of support for the Hutterites, as far as if you seek social media and what not, if you look at them. It seems like this is kind of a hot topic and there’s support for both sides. We'll see where this goes.
There's indication that there’ll be future meetings, maybe in Fort Benton or Great Falls, and this apparently has been an issue, as far as Mr. Siversten 's concerned, since he was in the legislature.
O’Brien: Well, I've been speaking with Paul Dragu, editor of The Havre Herald, who along with John Kelleher is keeping tabs on this story, which can be found at havreherald.com. Paul, it's been great talking. I really appreciate your information.
Dragu: Alright, thanks Ed. Thanks for everything.