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Town of Grant v. Portage County

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District IV

September 21, 2017

Town of Grant, Portage County, Allan Farrey, Matt Goetz and Cynthia Coulthurst a/k/a Cynthia Welling, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
Portage County, Defendant-Respondent.

         APPEAL from a judgment of the circuit court for Portage County No. 2015CV176BERNARD N. BULT, Judge. Affirmed.

          Before Lundsten, P.J., Kloppenburg and Fitzpatrick, JJ.

          FITZPATRICK, J.

         ¶1 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.[1]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).[2] 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.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 The following facts are undisputed.

         ¶3 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.

         ¶4 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.

         ¶5 The Town of Grant also provides ambulance services to its residents and funds this service via its own local property tax levy.

         ¶6 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.

         ¶7 We will mention other undisputed material facts as relevant to a particular argument in the Discussion that follows.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶8 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.

         ¶9 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 1.

         ¶10 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 N.W.2d 373.

         ¶11 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. 473 (1935)).

         ¶12 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 each.[3]

         A. Statutory Authority for Portage County to Levy a Property Tax for its Ambulance Service.

         ¶13 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.[4] 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.

(Emphasis added.)

         ¶14 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.

         ¶15 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.

         ¶16 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.

(Emphasis added.)

         ¶17 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).[5]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 ...


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