Town of Grant, Portage County, Allan Farrey, Matt Goetz and Cynthia Coulthurst a/k/a Cynthia Welling, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Portage County, Defendant-Respondent.
from a judgment of the circuit court for Portage County No.
2015CV176BERNARD N. BULT, Judge. Affirmed.
Lundsten, P.J., Kloppenburg and Fitzpatrick, JJ.
The Town of Grant and three of its residents, Allan Farrey,
Matt Goetz, and Cynthia Coulthurst (a/k/a Cynthia Welling),
sued Portage County over property taxes that Town of Grant
property owners pay to Portage County for a countywide
ambulance service provided by the County. The circuit court
granted summary judgment to Portage County and the Town
appeals.We conclude that Portage County has the
authority to levy the property tax for the County's
ambulance service pursuant to the general grant of taxing
authority under WIS. STAT. § 59.51(2)
(2015-16). The Town contends that the property tax
levied by the County for the County's ambulance service
exceeds the authority granted to counties by the Home Rule
statute, WIS. STAT. § 59.03(1). The Town argues in the
alternative that, because Portage County did not follow the
requirements of § 59.03(2), the County has no authority
to levy a property tax on residents of the Town of Grant for
the County's ambulance service. We reject both arguments
of the Town and affirm.
The following facts are undisputed.
The Town of Grant is located within Portage County. The three
individual Plaintiffs-Appellants were, at all relevant times,
Town of Grant residents, Town of Grant real property
taxpayers, and Portage County real property taxpayers.
Portage County has provided ambulance services, as a
component part of an EMS (Emergency Medical Services)-related
program, to all County residents continually from at least
1950 to the present. The cost of Portage County's EMS
program, including the cost of providing ambulance services
to all Portage County residents, is part of the County's
annual operations budget and is included as part of the
county-purpose property tax levy. In addition to the property
tax levy, Portage County charges individuals as a result of
responding to emergency calls. The amounts charged to
individuals for EMS calls do not cover the entire cost of
providing emergency medical services, including fixed
overhead costs for making the services generally available.
The Town of Grant also provides ambulance services to its
residents and funds this service via its own local property
The Town sued the County seeking a declaratory judgment that
Portage County does not have lawful authority to collect
property taxes for the County's ambulance service from
Town of Grant residents, along with related injunctive and
monetary relief. The parties moved for summary judgment. The
circuit court granted the County's motion, denied the
Town's motion, and dismissed the Amended Complaint.
We will mention other undisputed material facts as relevant
to a particular argument in the Discussion that follows.
We review de novo the grant or denial of summary judgment and
apply the same methodology and standards as the circuit
court. Town of Bamboo v. Village of West Baraboo,
2005 WI.App. 96, ¶5, 283 Wis.2d 479, 699 N.W.2d 610;
American Transmission Co., LLC v. Dane Cty., 2009
WI.App. 126, ¶8, 321 Wis.2d 138, 772 N.W.2d 731.
The circuit court's decision here on summary judgment
depended upon the proper interpretation of applicable
statutes. That presents a question of law when, as in this
appeal, the facts are undisputed. American
Transmission, 321 Wis.2d 138, ¶8 n.5; Olson v.
Farrar, 2012 WI 3, ¶24, 338 Wis.2d 215, 809 N.W.2d
Statutory interpretation begins with the language of the
statute. If the meaning of the statute is plain, the inquiry
is ordinarily stopped. State ex rel Kalal v. Circuit
Court for Dane Cty., 2004 WI 58, ¶45, 271 Wis.2d
633, 681 N.W.2d 110. Statutory language is given its common,
ordinary, and accepted meaning generally. Id.
Context and structure are important to the analysis. So,
statutory language is interpreted in the context in which it
is used as part of a whole rather than in isolation.
Id., ¶46. Statutory provisions which address
the same matter should be addressed in harmony if possible
such that each has force and effect. Belding v.
Demoulin, 2014 WI 8, ¶17, 352 Wis.2d 359, 843
All statutes concerning counties must be viewed through the
lens of the authority granted to counties by the Wisconsin
Constitution and the legislature. Counties exist for, and
derive their powers from, the state through legislation.
Jackson Cty. v. DNR, 2006 WI 96, ¶16, 293
Wis.2d 497, 717 N.W.2d 713');">717 N.W.2d 713. A county has "only such
powers as are conferred upon [it] by statute, or such as are
necessarily implied therefrom." Id. (quoting
Spaulding v. Wood Cty., 218 Wis. 224, 228, 260 N.W.
Because there is no genuine dispute of material fact, we must
determine which party is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law. WIS. STAT. § 802.08(2). We explain, first, that the
powers expressly and impliedly conferred upon Portage County
entitle it to summary judgment. We then consider the
Town's arguments and explain why we reject
Statutory Authority for Portage County to Levy a Property Tax
for its Ambulance Service.
WISCONSIN Stat. § 59.01 reads: "Each county in the
state is a body corporate, authorized to ... make such
contracts and to do such other acts as are necessary and
proper to the exercise of the powers and privileges granted
and the performance of the legal duties charged upon
it." The authority that allows a board of supervisors to
act on behalf of a county originates in the Wisconsin
Constitution: "The legislature may confer upon the
boards of supervisors of the several counties of the state
such powers of a local, legislative and administrative
character as they shall from time to time prescribe."
WIS. CONST, art. IV, § 22. See also Jackson
Cty., 293 Wis.2d 497, ¶16. WISCONSIN STAT. §
59.51(1) sets forth powers prescribed for each county board
of supervisors. It states:
The board of each County shall have the authority to
exercise any organizational or administrative power,
subject only to the constitution and any enactment of the
legislature which grants the organizational or administrative
power to a county executive or county administrator or to a
person supervised by a county executive or county
administrator or any enactment which is of statewide concern
and which uniformly affects every county. Any organizational
or administrative power conferred under this subchapter shall
be in addition to all other grants. A county board may
exercise any organizational or administrative power under
this subchapter without limitation because of enumeration,
and these powers shall be broadly and liberally construed and
limited only by express language.
Additionally, the legislature has granted to counties in WIS.
STAT. § 59.54 at least twenty-eight separate powers.
Those specifically delineated powers concern, generally,
public protection and safety. See §
59.54(1)-(28). Subsection (1) reads: "(1) AMBULANCES.
The board may purchase, equip, operate and maintain
ambulances and contract for ambulance service with one or
more providers for conveyance of the sick or injured and make
reasonable charges for the use thereof." As noted by the
circuit court, § 59.54(1) contains three separate powers
a county board may assert: (1) purchase, equip, operate, and
maintain ambulances; (2) contract for ambulance service with
one or more providers for conveyance of the sick or injured;
and (3) make reasonable charges for use of an ambulance
within the county. The term "may, " as used in the
grants of authority in § 59.54, allows discretionary
authority to counties. Liberty Grove Town Bd. v. Door
Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, 2005 WI.App. 166,
¶¶10-11, 284 Wis.2d 814, 7O2 N.W.2d33.
We conclude that the plain language of the statutes provides
that Portage County has express statutory authority to
provide ambulance services to residents of that County.
See American Med. Transp. of Wis., Inc. v.
Curtis-Universal, Inc., 154 Wis.2d 135, 149-51, 452
N.W.2d 575 (1990) (WIS. STAT. § 59.54(1), previously
numbered WIS. STAT. § 59.07(41), authorizes counties to
contract for ambulance services). We consider, next, the
grant of authority to counties to levy taxes.
The taxing authority relied upon by Portage County is set out
at WIS. STAT. § 59.51(2). That grant of authority allows
a county board to levy taxes in order to carry out any powers
granted to the board. It states:
General authority. The board may represent the
county, have the management of the business and concerns of
the county in all cases where no other provision is made,
apportion and levy taxes and appropriate money to carry
into effect any of the board's powers and duties.
The authority of a county to act may be conferred if the
statutes necessarily imply that power. Jackson Cty.,293 Wis.2d 497, ¶16; Town of Vernon v. Waukesha
Cty.,102 Wis.2d 686, 689, 307 N.W.2d 227
(1981).Interpreting WIS. STAT. § 59.51(2)
according to its plain meaning and in context with related
statutes, we conclude that the power to levy a tax for its
ambulance service has been conferred on Portage County. As
was seen, the Portage County Board may exercise any
organizational or administrative power and the legislature
has directed that we construe those powers broadly and
liberally. See § 59.51(1). Among those powers
is the discretionary authority to enter into contracts for
ambulance services. See WIS. STAT. § 59.54(1).
The board is also given the power to "levy taxes ... to
carry into effect any of the board's powers and
duties." WIS. Stat. § 59.51(2). Upon review of the
statutes, the ...