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AGO 1965 No. 43 - September 29, 1965
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


COURTS ‑- JUSTICE COURTS ‑- EXPENDITURES ‑- COUNTY CURRENT EXPENSE FUND ‑- APPORTIONMENT OF COSTS.

All justice court fees received by the county current expense fund are to be credited toward defraying justice court expenses; however, the current expense fund's share of fines and forfeitures is to be used for that purpose only on the same basis as fines and forfeitures shared by other governmental units under RCW 3.62.050.

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                                                              September 29, 1965

Honorable Richard L. Pitt
Prosecuting Attorney
Island County Court House
Coupeville, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 65-66 No. 43

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have requested the opinion of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Under RCW 3.62.050, in determining the amount of the unreimbursed difference of justice court expenditures to be apportioned among governmental unit funds entitled to share in the receipts of the justice courts, does the county treasurer first deduct from such expenses the entire amount of justice court fines creditable to the current expense fund, in addition to the fees credited to the current expense fund under RCW 3.62.030?

            We answer your question in the negative.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Your question calls for construction of the provisions of chapter 3.62 RCW, and particularly RCW 3.62.050.  The object of construction is to ascertain the meaning and intention of the legislature and such intention, when discovered, is controlling.  Cory v. Nethery, 19 Wn.2d 326, 142 P.2d 488 (1943).  In the process of arriving at legislative intent our first resort must be to the context and subject matter of the legislation.  Graffell v. Honeysuckle, 30 Wn.2d 390, 191 P.2d 858 (1948).  Where there is ambiguity a statute should be construed according to its apparent general purpose with a view to executing the design and purpose of the act.  State ex rel. Oregon R. & N. Co. v. Clausen, 63 Wash. 535, 116 Pac. 7 (1911).

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            The provisions and purposes of chapter 3.62 RCW are discussed in general terms in our previous opinion, AGO 63-64 No. 10 [[to Cliff Yelle, State Auditor on January 31, 1963]], a copy of which is enclosed.  As summarized at page 2 of that opinion:

            "Allfees collected by a justice court operating under the new justice court act, except fees collected by a municipal department of a justice court (RCW 3.46.120) are to be remitted to the county treasurer to be credited to the county current expense fund.  RCW 3.62.030.  Costs, fines, forfeitures and penalties assessed and collected by justice courts because of violations of city ordinances are to be remitted to the treasurer of the city wherein the violation occurred.  RCW 3.62.040.  All other fines, forfeitures and penalties assessed and collected by justice courts are to be remitted at least monthly to the county treasurer together with a financial statement noting the information necessary for crediting of such funds as required by law (i.e., including credits to various special funds or funds of other governmental units entitled to portions of fines, forfeitures and penalties assessed for specific violations).  RCW 3.62.020."

            Further on, at page 3 of the opinion, we pointed out that:

            "In other words, before disbursing any amounts to the various special funds or governmental units entitled to share in receipts of a justice court, the county treasurer is to charge each governmental unit fund with its proportionate share of any 'unreimbursed difference'; i.e., the difference between receipts1/ creditable to the current expense or salary funds and total justice court expenditures. . . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            The ordinary expenses of county government, including the salaries of county officers, are payable from the current expense fund (originally called the general fund) unless other legislative provision is made.  See, AGO 63-64 No. 76 [[to C. W. "Red" Beck, State Representative on December 19, 1963]], and other opinions and authorities noted therein.  Presumably expenses of operating the justice court system would be paid entirely from the current expense fund in the absence of other legislative provision.

            RCW 36.33.010, establishing the current expense fund, provides as follows:

            "Every county shall maintain a current expense fund to which shall be credited all taxes levied for that purpose and all fees collected, fines assessed, and forfeitures adjudged in the county the proceeds of which have not been specifically allocated to any other purpose."

            Since no segregation of revenues is made, the legislature obviously contemplated that all such revenues could be used to defray costs of general county government.  To limit the use of justice court fines solely for the purpose of defraying justice court expenses would then have the effect of taking away from the county a portion of its present general revenues used for other county purposes.  Your basic question is whether the legislature had that intention in adopting chapter 299, Laws of 1961 (chapter 3.62 RCW,supra).

            RCW 3.62.020 provides as follows:

            "All fees, fines, forfeitures and penalties assessed and collected by justice courts, except fines, forfeitures and penalties assessed and collected because of the violation of city ordinances, shall be remitted by the justice court to the county treasurer at least monthly, together with a financial statement as required by the division of municipal corporations, noting the information necessary for crediting of such funds as required by law."

            RCW 3.62.030 makes special provision for fees as follows:

            "Except as provided in chapter 3.46, all amounts collected by a justice court as fees shall be remitted as provided in RCW 3.62.020 to be credited to the county current expense fund."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            RCW 3.62.050 then provides for apportionment of certain receipts as follows:

            "Quarterly, the county treasurer shall determine the difference between the amount deposited to the current expense or salary fund by all of the justice courts of the county and the total expenditures of such justice courts, including the cost of providing courtroom and office space.  The treasurer shall then charge each governmental unit fund entitled to share in the receipts of the courts its proportionate share of such unreimbursed difference of expenditures incurred during the quarter and make the appropriate treasurer's remittance to the current expense or salary fund.  The proportionate share charged against each fund shall be determined by the relationship between the unreimbursed expenditures and the total credits of the courts to each fund as required by RCW 3.62.020.  Balances remaining in governmental funds shall then be remitted as provided by law."

            The apparent intention of the legislature in enacting this chapter was to make the justice court system self-supporting; i.e., to cause the costs of operating the justice court system to be defrayed out of revenues derived from that source.  The legislature obviously recognized that the justice court fees creditable to the county current expense fund under RCW 3.62.030, supra, would not be sufficient for that purpose.  It is also apparent that the legislature did not intend the county current expense fund to bear the entire cost burden of operating the justice court system over and above the fees derived from such operation.  Rather, RCW 3.62.050,supra, was designed for the apparent sole purpose of providing a mechanical method for sharing such costs among the various governmental unit funds entitled to share in the receipts of justice courts.  The meaning of the phrase "governmental unit fund" was explained in our previous opinion, AGO 63-64 No. 10,supra, at page 6, as follows:

            ". . . These 'governmental unit' funds are obviously suspense accounts of the funds consisting of fines,  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] forfeitures and penalties held in the county treasury pending remittance to the funds or agencies entitled to receive them. . . ."

            In connection with legislative purpose, it is interesting to note that after issuance of this opinion, wherein we pointed out that the legislature had not provided for reimbursement of the county current expense fund's expenditures for furnishing courtroom or other space, the legislature at its next session made specific provision to include "the cost of providing courtroom and office space."  See, § 2, chapter 213, Laws of 1963.  This legislative history bears out our conclusion as to the intent of the legislature to relieve the county current expense fund of the financial burden of operating the justice court system and to distribute such costs fairly among the various funds and governmental entities described above.

            Obviously, from what the legislature has expressly said, all fees received by the county current expense fund are to be applied toward defraying the expenses of the justice courts.  RCW 3.62.030 and 3.62.050,supra.  It is only the "unreimbursed difference," i.e., the difference between such receipts and expenditures that is to be financed from fines and other revenues.  While RCW 3.62.050,supra, does not expressly limit the "amount deposited to the current expense or salary fund" in such a way as to make it clear that only fees were to be initially credited against expenses, that intent becomes clear upon further consideration of the language and purpose of the statute.  The statute itself refers to "the amount deposited to the current expense or salary fund."  (emphasis supplied.)  As of the time when the treasurer's calculations are made, there is no requirement upon him to "deposit" any of the current expense fund's portion of fines and other revenue (other than fees).  Under RCW 3.62.020,supra, the treasurer presumably has received a total remittance, accompanied by a financial statement containing the informationnecessary for crediting the county current expense fund (as well as all other funds) with the proportionate share of such revenue.  The legislature contemplated that the funds would be in a state of suspense until the necessary crediting and deduction were made.  See, AGO 63-64 No. 10,supra.  In carrying out this legislative intent the state auditor has, under RCW 43.09.200, prescribed a uniform system for handling such receipts.  This system is outlined in Bulletin No. 68-B of the state auditor's office, division of municipal corporations, copy attached.  Paragraph 2 explains the purposes of the bulletin as follows:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            "The Division of Municipal Corporations hereby authorizes a Suspense Fund for use only in the counties indicated above, the new County Fund to be known as the Justice Court Clearing Fund.  All Justice Court fines and forfeitures shall be deposited to this fund and credited to appropriate sub‑accounts pending a quarterly cost analysis by the County Treasurer as provided by RCW 3.62.050.  (See attached recommended schedule)"

            It is significant that the bulletin, which constitutes the division of municipal corporations' administrative construction of chapter 3.62 RCW,supra, treats the county current expense fund as any other governmental unit fund for the purpose of crediting and deducting receipts other than fees.  Thus, the county current expense fund is placed on the same basis as every other fund in its capacity to receive and use a share of justice court fines and forfeitures. Out of the fines and forfeitures creditable to the county current expense fund, there is deducted only a proportionate share of fines and forfeitures according to the same formula as deductions from other governmental unit funds.  In our opinion the state auditor's bulletin No. 68-B conforms to the intent of the statute in this regard.

            In summary, it is our opinion that although all justice court fees received by the county current expense fund are to be credited toward defraying justice court expenses, the county current expense fund's share of fines and forfeitures is to be used for that purpose only on the same basis as the fines and forfeitures shared by other governmental units under RCW 3.62.050,supra.  Accordingly, we answer your question, as paraphrased, in the negative.

            We trust this information will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

ROBERT F. HAUTH
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/The opinion did not discuss what constituted "receipts," and any inference that the term included fines as well as fees would have been dicta.

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