Shoal Lakes farmers say they weren’t allowed to examine or make a copy of their assessment and pressured to take it or leave it
The paperwork is spread across the kitchen of the new home Brian McCulley purchased after flooding forced him off his land near the shore of West Shoal Lake — including a scorned buyout offer from the province.
“It wasn’t fair market value and I didn’t consider what was on that piece of paper to be an offer at all,” said the retired rancher. “It was insulting.”
The offer violated the terms of the Shoal Lakes Agricultural Flooding Assistance Program because it wasn’t based on the fair market value of his property, said McCulley. Instead officials used Farm Use Assessment value, which has traditionally been used when assessing taxes on farmed land located close to urban centres, he said.
The property assessment he received from the GO office in Teulon during buyout negotiations shows there were two assessments done — one at market value and one using the much lower farm-use value.
Offering the lower value showed “they just had no respect for us,” McCulley said.
It took months before he finally received an offer that reflected the market value of his property and what he said was an apology from an official with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives. He accepted both, but said he wonders how many other Shoal Lake producers were treated the way he was.
Orval Proctor is wondering as well.
The cow-calf operator said he believes he was also offered the farm-use value for his land instead of market value, but is having difficulty proving that because he wasn’t provided with a copy of his assessment.
“He pushed it across in front of me with his finger on it, and I just got to glance at a couple of pages and see that it was signed by the appraisers,” said Proctor. “But as far as what it said, I couldn’t pick it up and leaf through it and I never got to take a copy home.”
Other flooded-out landowners also say they weren’t given the chance to fully examine or keep copies of their property appraisals. McCulley said it was only luck, and some quick thinking, that allowed him to photocopy his assessment.
Proctor said he believes a closer look at his assessment might reveal why he was offered $99,000 for two half sections. A private appraisal of nearby land sales put the market value of his two half sections — prior to flooding — at $305,000.
“They presented all the offers as if they were fair market value,” he said. “They weren’t.”
Proctor has appealed the province’s assessment to the Land Values Appraisal Commission, and expects a decision soon.
The program uses fair market values, said GO Teams director Gerald Huebner.
“I’m not an appraisal professional so I have to be careful in commenting on that,” he said. “There was some adjustment made in some files and this was only a very small part of a few files where there was a judgment to what its agricultural value was versus its value for other purposes.”
When asked why someone might receive an offer based on farm-use rather than market value, Huebner said he couldn’t comment on individual offers, but added the program is a voluntary one.
‘Voluntary’ is a word both Proctor and McCulley heard many times, including by a Crown lawyer during Proctor’s Land Values Appraisal Commission’s appeal hearing.
McCulley said it indicates a like-it-or-lump-it attitude that has left many farmers feeling bullied and without recourse. He noted his purchase offer also stated that should an applicant appeal an assessment and receive a higher value, the government has the right to revoke its offer.
But Huebner said regardless of the “legal wording” in the offers, the province has publicly stated it will accept decisions where an appeal garnered a higher value and has not revoked any offers because of a successful appeal for a higher appraisal.
That’s typical of the kind of confusing information flooded producers have to deal with, McCulley said. In addition, Proctor said staff at the Teulon GO office, where most offers were made, warned him not to share information or discuss his offer with friends and neighbours.
“It might have been a caution, it’s certainly not an instruction or prohibition,” said Huebner.
But Proctor said he wonders whether the rising costs for the Shoal Lakes Agricultural Flooding Assistance Program prompted officials to push for settlements below fair market value. The cost of the 46 buyouts covering 30,599 acres is approaching $13 million, with five cases yet to be settled. A 2010 estimate pegged the total cost of buying flood-prone land around the Shoal Lakes at $11.4 million. (An additional $5.26 million has been paid out to producers for income loss and transportation costs.)
A frustrated Proctor said he doesn’t know what he will do if the appeal board rules against him, noting he is too young for retirement and still has a young family.
“Right now we just have to wait and see,” he said.