Who should pay? Lethbridge County wins appeal over head tax, but fight isn’t over yet
By Tim Kalinowski
While Lethbridge County is claiming victory and vindication after the Alberta Court of Appeals recently upheld a previous Court of Queen’s Bench decision allowing it to continue to charge its livestock head tax against large-scale cattle operations, local cattlefeeders may be preparing for the next round in court.
“It’s not done yet,” confirmed Van Raay Paskal Farms Ltd. owner Rick Paskal ominously when asked about his thoughts on the decision.
Paskal did not get into further specifics during his brief email exchange with Ag-Matters, but suggested he might have more to say on the matter later.
VRP Farms Ltd. was one of nine local feedlots which launched the original Court of Queen’s Bench suit against Lethbridge County in 2016 challenging the head tax. The others were John Schooten and Sons Custom Feedyard Ltd., Grandview Cattle Feeders Ltd., 6a Cattle Company Ltd., G. Thompson Livestock Co. Inc., K. Wever & Sons Farms, Adrian Dewilde, Monarch Feeders Ltd., and 589494 Alberta Ltd.
Lethbridge County Reeve Lorne Hickey had hoped last year’s municipal election, where he and much of council were re-elected despite the head tax, and the recent Court of Appeals decision might convince the county’s cattle operators to put this dispute behind them.
“There was never a question about the county having the ability to do it; the challenge really was about the function of how it worked,” says Hickey. “One hundred per cent of the money collected from (this head tax) goes to infrastructure, and there is no ands, ifs or buts about that. We borrowed $13-million to pay for that haul road network, and the money to pay that back every year comes from the money collected from this tax.”
“I think a lot of voters in the county came to the realization that this was an improvement over what they had,” Hickey adds, “and the roads are more travelable and usable for the majority of the moisture situations we have once in awhile, and allowed them to get in and out quite easily.”
Hickey acknowledges not everybody has to pay the head tax, but felt the current tax is fair nonetheless when you consider the measuring stick of relative usage.
“I think it has been good for everybody,” he says. “I realize not everybody has to pay it, but I think the heavier users are paying for the parts they use. The perfect example is a toll road: You go through it 100 times a day you are going to pay more than somebody who doesn’t.
“In this situation a lot of people think it is just the cattle, but you have got to consider the feed and then hauling the manure out, and all the other processes that go along with these (larger-scale operations). There is a lot of weight involved that goes over the infrastructure.”
The Alberta Cattlefeeders Association says that the County’s measuring stick leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of fairness.
“Obviously we are quite disappointed in the outcome (of the case),” said CEO and president Janice Tranberg, “and we are disappointed the county didn’t work better with cattle producers and other farmers to find a real solution. We had reached out to them, put together some scenarios about how we could work collaboratively, and they chose not to work with us. So I think that is very disappointing.”
Local feedlot owner Ryan Kasko, president and owner of the Kasko Cattle Company, while not directly involved in the legal dispute, also questions the County’s definition of fairness.
“I have a cattlefeeding operation in Lethbridge County, and I have one in the MD of Taber and one in the County of Warner,” explains Kasko. “These are similar-sized operations and I’m paying over six times the tax in Lethbridge County compared to the other municipalities. It’s a significant difference.
“There are a lot of benefits that come from the cattlefeeding sector to the Lethbridge area,” he adds, “and we should be encouraging that investment. This is a way of discouraging it instead.”
Kasko says he realizes a big part of the problem for the County is a lack of revenue to fund necessary infrastructure repairs and replacements without money from provincial and federal grant programs.
He hopes the reeve and council may yet decide to work with local feedlot and livestock owners to come up with a solution that works for all sides.
“We hope to continue to work with Lethbridge County and find a more equitable way of getting the revenue to help fund that infrastructure,” he confirms.