Agricorp defends asking for money back on 4,500 old debts
Some farmers hire lawyers and dig in their heels
OTTAWA ó While one Ottawa lawyer has 18 clients looking for ways to get out of paying back a bill to Agricorp, the administrator of government agricultural programs says not all farmers are hoping for a free lunch.
Agricorp pored through 11 years of data to determine who owes what and found 4,500 farmers owed $30 million. "Over 30 per cent of the 4,500 farmers we sent packages since May have already submitted their repayment plan and/or made full or partial payments on their account," Agricorp communications manager Stephanie Charest told Farmers Forum. "Over the past 10 years (Ontario) farmers have received $3.5 billion in program payments and 4,500 had accounts with outstanding balances, so this is less than one per cent of payments."
Agricorp says farmers owe money for various reasons: receiving overpayments made through support programs, corrections to program forms wrongly completed, processing errors or farmers accepting money from programs they didnít participate in.
One problem for farmers is that the Agricorp accounting system is unusual. Some programs operate on a forecast of losses. "Farmers receive payments at the end of their fiscal year when we can see what their loss is," Charest said. "With the advance the payment is made before the loss is completely known. So, at the end of the year when those actual numbers are known we calculate the exact amount."
The result can be that Agricorp owes more or the farmer was overpaid. An adjustment is often made in a future year by Agricorp to even things out.
For some farmers the future is now.
Renfrew County beef farmer Peter Tippens had offered to pay half of his bill of $18,400 but has since hired Ottawa lawyer Donald Good and taken his offer off the table. "Iíve changed my mind," he said. "They never sent a statement of account. Every year we get a bill for a fee to belong to the Agristability program. They never once put on there that we owed any money. They never invoiced us."
Good argues that while the law allows the province to be exempt from the two-year limit on debt collection for numerous reasons, "negligence" in managing its accounts is not one of them. Good has advised clients not to pay back the money until they receive proof of what they owe.
In defence of Agricorp, Charest said that if farmers were overpaid or accepted money without being in a program they should have known the money is not theirs. "For people who are saying they donít know what the money (owed) is for, I think it is important to clarify that letters were sent out with all advanced payments, explaining the farmersí obligations if they choose to accept the (advance) payments. We also sent reminder letters and made phone calls to follow up on those to farmers who didnít participate in programs."
Charest added that Agricorp wants farmers to call to get clarification and more documentation if required. "We want farmers to call us. I canít emphasize that enough."
Agricorp wants all of the money back in three years.
Most farmers are willing to repay what they owe, said Charest, noting that the "vast majority" of the 4,500 farmers in question were not in programs and many of the outstanding debts were incurred during the BSE crisis years (2003 to 2007).
Of those who dig in their heals and refuse to pay, Charest said their file "might be sent to the Ministry of Finance collection services."