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AGO 1950 No. 239 - March 22, 1950
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Smith Troy | 1941-1952 | Attorney General of Washington

SOCIAL SECURITY ‑- STATE'S RESPONSIBILITY ‑- GENERAL ASSISTANCE ‑- ASSUMPTION BY COUNTIES

(1) The State Department of Social Security has the legal responsibility to administer general assistance and to provide funds over and above the two mill levy of the counties under the laws of this state.

(2) When and if the state funds are depleted the state is in no sense relieved of its responsibility to provide assistance as in the manner prescribed by the state social security laws, but if the general assistance program set up under the Social Security Laws comes to an end, the counties can voluntarily assume the responsibility to care for the poor and needy.

(3) Counties can legally provide for financing poor relief.

(4) The legislature can appropriate money to reimburse counties for expenses incurred for poor relief from June 1 until the date of such appropriation.

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                  March 22, 1950

Honorable Roderic Olzendam
Director
Department of Social Security
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 49-51 No. 239

Dear Sir:

            We have your recent request for an opinion on the following questions:

            1. Does the State, acting through the Department of Social Security, or the counties, acting through the Board of County Commissioners, have the legal responsibility for the administration of general assistance?

            2. If the counties are not legally responsible for the administration of general assistance, can they voluntarily assume the responsibility for financing and administering general assistance if state funds are not available after June 1?

            3. If the county should assume such responsibility and the two mill levy for public welfare is not sufficient to meet the cost, could they legally provide the means for financing general assistance?

            4. If the counties should assume the burden of providing for and administering general assistance, could the next session of the legislature appropriate money to reimburse the counties for money expended for such general assistance during the period from June 1 until the next session of the legislature?

            The conclusions reached may be summarized as follows:

            1. The State Department of Social Security has the legal responsibility to administer general assistance and to provide funds over and above the two mill levy of the counties under the laws of this state.

            2. When and if the state funds are depleted the state is in no sense relieved of its responsibility to provide assistance as in the manner prescribed by the state social security laws, but if the general assistance program set up under the Social Security Laws comes to an end, the counties can voluntarily assume the responsibility to care for the poor and needy.

            3. Counties can legally provide for financing poor relief.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            4. The legislature can appropriate money to reimburse counties for expenses incurred for poor relief from June 1 until the date of such appropriation.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Your first question is concerned with determining whether the state or the counties have the legal responsibility for the administration of general assistance under the laws of this state.  Prior to 1930 all assistance to the poor and needy of the state was provided under the so-called "Poor Laws," in which the responsibility for such care was vested in the county commissioners.  The county commissioners were the county officers charged with the duty of administering such assistance.  The legislative enactments which gradually placed the responsibility for all assistance in the state rather than the counties began in 1935.

            Early cases in the field of public assistance are of little help in resolving the present questions, in that from 1935 ‑ 1939 the laws were changed at each session of the legislature.  The legal responsibility for public assistance was then in the process of being shifted from the counties to the state and federal governments.  For example, inRaynor v. King County, 2 Wn. (2d) 199, 97 P. (2d) 696, it was the duty of the state to provide for the relief of unemployed individuals, but that the county was not thereby relieved of the duty of rendering assistance to those not classed as employable unemployed.  The pertinent portion of the statute construed by the court in that case provided that:

                 "It shall be the duty of the state to provide for the relief of unemployed."  (Section 2)

            The State Department of Social Security was created by chapter 111, Laws of 1937, as a state department to administer on a uniform statewide basis the various categories of public assistance, including general assistance.  The basic public assistance law which set up state administration and under which the department still operates is found in chapter 216, Laws of 1939.  One of the earliest cases on the question of the responsibility of the state for public assistance is found in State ex rel. Price v. Peterson, 198 Wash. 490, 88 P. (2d) 842, in which the court held that under chapter 180, Laws of 1937, public assistance in this state was administered by the Department of Social Security and boards of county commissioners were agents of the director and state officers when acting pursuant to the terms of the act.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            In the case ofMaskule v. State, 3 Wn. (2d) 121, 99 P. (2d) 929, the court analyzed the historical development of the Social Security Laws of this state from 1937 on, and held that by whatever,

                 "name or term the county organization may have been designated on or after April 1, 1937, it was, with respect to the administration of public assistance, but a geographical subdivision of the State Department of Social Security."

            The court there affirmed the Price case, supra, and held that persons employed in or by the county welfare departments were state officers since their functions did not relate to purely local county concerns, but rather to the concern of the state at large, or the general public, although those functions were exercised within definite territorial limits, i.e., a county.

            In view of those opinions of the Supreme Court this office has held in a long series of opinions that all public assistance within the state is under the control and direction of the State Department of Social Security.  See, for example, opinions of July 10, 1947, and July 8, 1948, to the Director of the Department of Social Security.  The counties are legally responsible for general assistance only to the extent of the two mill levy required by section 10, chapter 216, Laws of 1939, as last amended by chapter 172, Laws of 1943 (1943 Rem. Supp. 10007-110a).  However, under the opinions of the Supreme Court the counties are required to provide the money raised by the two mill levy but they have no control over the expenditures of such moneys.

            Your second and third questions will be considered together, inasmuch as they present two phases of the same problem.

            In the event that state funds are completely depleted in the general assistance program as you advise us now seems likely by June 1, you are concerned with the question of whether or not the counties can assume voluntarily the responsibility for such care.  It would seem that if the program of general assistance under the Social Security Laws comes completely to an end, the question is whether or not the counties can legally provide emergency care for the poor and needy.  The care provided by the counties would this take over where the present general assistance program ends, but it would not be general assistance under the Social Security Laws, but such care would be a program of poor relief to be provided by the counties in such manner as the Commissioners shall see fit.  Relief may be furnished through doles of money or food, county poor farms, work relief projects or any other manner.  There are no laws restricting the judgment of the county commissioners in determining who shall be given relief or the amount or form thereof.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            Article VIII, section 7, of the State Constitution provides that,

                 "No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money or property, or loan its money or credit, to or in aid of any individual, association, company, or corporation,except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm, or become directly or indirectly the owner of any stock in or bonds of any association, company, or corporation."  (Emphasis supplied)

            In the case ofRummens v. Evans, 168 Wash. 527, 13 P. (2d) 26, which was decided by the Supreme Court of this state prior to the enactment of any of the Social Security Laws, the court held that under the Constitutional provision,supra, and the "Poor" Laws, county commissioners were vested with the entire and exclusive control and superintendence of the poor in their counties.  The court there held that under the statutes and the decisions of the court the county had a positive governmental function and duty to care for the poor.  See alsoState ex rel. Robbins v. Scofield, 184 Wash. 270, 50 P. (2d) 1022;State ex rel. Hart v. Gleeson, 189 Wash. 292, 64 P. (2d) 1023.  Subsequently, the statutes have changed and the legal responsibility for the financial care and the administration of the general assistance program has been vested in the Department of Social Security.  However, there has been no change in the Constitutional provision permitting the necessary care of the poor and infirm by the counties or municipalities.

            If the general assistance program of the State Department of Social Security comes to an end on June 1, 1950, due to lack of funds, it is our opinion that the counties may provide necessary care for the poor and infirm under that provision of the Constitution, inasmuch as that care is a necessary governmental function which must be performed by some unit of the government.

            In the case ofRaynor v. King County, supra, the court held that inasmuch as the care of the poor is a necessary governmental function it may incur indebtedness beyond the debt limitation.  See also theScofield andGleeson cases, supra.

            If the counties should assume the responsibility for care of the poor and infirm, each county would handle the problem of its own financing and administration.  It is possible, however, that the county commissioners might wish to make use of the  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] facilities available in the county welfare departments.  There would be no legal requirement that they do so, however, inasmuch as the responsibility for such administration would be vested in the board of county commissioners within each county.  There would be no requirements of statewide uniformity.  The State Department of Social Security would have no responsibility for or administration over such assistance which would take over where the present general assistance program ends.

            In answer to your fourth question, it is our opinion that there is no constitutional or statutory prohibition which would prevent the legislature from appropriating money at its next regular session to reimburse the counties for expenses incurred to the date of such appropriation, inasmuch as the counties are in effect assuming the burden for which the state is legally responsible.

Yours very truly,

SMITH TROY
Attorney General

JANE DOWDLE
Assistant Attorney General

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