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AGO 1967 No. 19 - June 06, 1967
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


DISTRICTS - WATER - DEBT LIMITATION.

The debt limitation of a water district is to be calculated on the basis of the actual value of the taxable property located therein, and not upon the basis of the assessed valuation of such property.

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                                                                    June 6, 1967

Honorable Richard L. Pitt
Prosecuting Attorney
Island County Court House
Coupeville, Washington 98239

                                                                                                                 Cite as:  AGO 1967 No. 19

Dear Sir:

            We are writing in response to your recent letter requesting our opinion on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            Is the limitation of indebtedness of a water district, organized and operated under the provisions of Title 57 RCW, to be calculated upon the basis of the actual value of the taxable property located therein, or is it to be calculated on the basis of the assessed valuation of such taxable property?

            In our opinion, the debt limitation of a water district is to be calculated on the basis of the actual value of the taxable property located therein, and not upon the basis of the assessed valuation of such property.  Our reasoning is set forth in the following analysis.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            The problem to which you have referred arises by reason of the difference in language of two statutes.  RCW 57.20.110 provides that:

            "Each and every water district that may hereafter be organized pursuant to this act is hereby authorized and empowered by and through its board of water commissioners to contract indebtedness for water purposes, and the maintenance thereof not exceedingone percent of the taxable property in such water district to be ascertained by the last assessment for state and county purposes previous to and the  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] incurring of such indebtedness."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            "This act," referred to in the statute, is chapter 114, Laws of 1929, which is our basic water district law.  RCW 57.20.110,supra, codifies§ 19 of the act.1/

             The other statute to be noted in considering your question is RCW 39.36.020, which states, in material part:

            "(1) No taxing district except cities and towns shall for any purpose become indebted in any manner to an amount exceeding one and one half percent of the last assessed valuation of the taxable  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] property in such taxing district, without the assent of three fifths of the voters therein voting at an election to be held for that purpose, nor in cases requiring such assent shall the total indebtedness at any time exceed five percent of the last assessed valuation of the taxable property in such taxing district."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            In addition to the foregoing statutes, we must also concern ourselves with the language of Article VIII, § 6, (Amendment 27) of our state constitution.  This constitutional provision reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

            "No county, city, town, school district, or other municipal corporation shall for any purpose become indebted in any manner to an amount exceedingone and one half percentum of the taxable property in such county, city, town, school district, or other municipal corporation, without the assent of three fifths of the voters therein voting at an election to be held for that purpose, nor in cases requiring such assent shall the total indebtedness at any time exceedfive percentum on the value of the taxable property therein, to be ascertained by the last assessment for state and county purposes previous to the incurring of such indebtedness, except that in incorporated cities the assessment shall be taken from the last assessment for city purposes: . . ." (Emphasis supplied.)

            InHansen v. Hoquiam, 95 Wash. 132, 163 Pac. 391 (1917), our state supreme court held that the constitutional limit upon municipal indebtedness of a percentage "of the value of the taxable property therein to be ascertained by the last assessment" does not mean a percentage of the assessed valuation, where the taxing officers assess the property at a percentage of its true value, but rather means the actual value of the property; i.e., the true value of the property against which its assessed valuation is determined.  It was immediately after that decision that the legislature enacted  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] the statute now codified as RCW 39.36.020 (1),supra.2/

             Thereafter, in State ex rel. School Dist. No. 102 v. Clausen, 116 Wash. 432, 199 Pac. 752 (1921), the court held that because of this 1917 act, the debt limit of all taxing districts had been reduced by the legislature from the constitutional maximum of a percentage of the actual value of the taxable property located therein to a percentage of the assessed valuation of such taxable property.  Quite clearly, the legislature had the power to enact this debt limitation reduction.  See,Henderson v. Tumwater, 46 Wn.2d 758, 285 P.2d 119 (1955).

            In its decision in theClausen case, the court further noted that § 4 of the 1917 act had defined the term "taxing district" to mean and embrace "all counties, cities, towns, townships, port districts, school districts, metropolitan park districts or other municipal corporations which now, or may hereafter exist."  This section is now codified as RCW 39.36.010, and has not been amended since the date of its original enactment.

            It was against this background that the legislature, in 1929, enacted the basic water district act, chapter 114, Laws of 1929.  Because of the provisions of § 1, chapter 143, Laws of 1917 (cf. RCW 39.36.020,supra), as interpreted by the supreme court in Clausen, it seems fairly apparent that had the 1929 water district act been silent on the question of the indebtedness limitation of water districts, these newly authorized municipal corporations would have been limited to an indebtedness based upon the assessed valuation of the  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] taxable property located therein (i.e., the statutory limitation) rather than to a debt limitation based upon the actual value of such taxable property (the constitutional limitation).  However, the legislature was not silent on this subject.

            Instead, as we have noted, the legislature included in the water district act the two sections above noted, §§ 19 and 20 (RCW 57.20.110 and 57.20.120) expressly authorizing water districts to incur indebtedness (a) without a vote of the people, and (b) with a vote of the people, up to amounts not exceeding designated percentages ". . . of the taxable property in such water district to be ascertained by the last assessment for state and county purposes previous to and the incurring of such indebtedness."

            In other words, the legislature applied to water districts essentially the same basis for computing municipal debt limitations as was set forth in Article VIII, § 6, of the constitution interpreted in Hansen v. Hoquiam, supra, to mean a percentage of the actual value of the taxable property located in the municipal corporation, and not merely the assessed valuation of such property.

            Clearly, §§ 19 and 20 of chapter 114, Laws of 1929 (now codified as RCW 57.20.110 and 57.20.120) are special statutes relating to a particular type of taxing district or municipal corporation.  As noted, they were enacted subsequent to the enactment of the general municipal corporation debt limitation statute, chapter 143, Laws of 1917 (chapter 39.36 RCW).  Accordingly, in our opinion, the matter is governed by the well-recognized rule that where a general and subsequent special statute relate to the same subject, the provisions of the latter must prevail.  See,State v. Collins, 55 Wn.2d 469, 348 P.2d 214 (1960); and Hartig v. Seattle, 53 Wash. 432, 102 Pac. 408 (1909).

            Thus, the debt limitation of a water district, organized and operating under the provisions of the 1929 water district act (now codified, with amendments, in Title 57 RCW) is as provided for by RCW 57.20.110, supra (in cases involving debt incurred without a vote of the people) and by RCW 57.20.120, supra (with voter approval).  RCW 39.36.020,supra, has no application to water districts.


             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            Furthermore, it is our opinion that because the crucial language of these special statutes is essentially the same as is the language of Article VIII, § 6 (Amendment 27) of the constitution, as interpreted in Hansen v. Hoquiam, supra, the debt limitation of a water district is therefore to be based upon the actual value of taxable property located therein, and not merely upon the assessed valuation of such property.

            It is hoped that the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Notably, § 20 of the same act, now codified as RCW 57.20.120, uses the same measuring terminology with regard to the additional indebtedness which a water district may incur with a vote of the people.  This statute provides as follows:

            "Each and every water district hereafter to be organized pursuant to this act, may contract indebtedness in excess of the amount named in RCW 57.20.110, but not exceeding in amount, together with existing indebtedness, five percent of the value of the taxable property in said district, to be ascertained as provided in RCW 57.20.110, whenever three fifths of the voters voting at said election in such water district assent thereto, at an election to be held in aid water district in the manner provided by this act, which election may either be a special or a general election, and the board of water commissioners are hereby authorized and empowered to submit the question of incurring such indebtedness, and issuing negotiable bonds of such water district to the qualified voters of such water district at any time they may so order:  Provided, That all bonds so to be issued shall be subject to the provisions regarding bonds as set out in RCW 57.20.010."

2/In its original form, the statute (§ 1, chapter 143, Laws of 1917), read as follows:

            "No taxing district shall for any purpose become indebted in any manner to an aunt exceeding one and one half per centum of the last assessed valuation of the taxable property in such taxing district, without the assent of three fifths of the voters therein voting at an election to be held for that purpose, nor in cases requiring such assent shall the total indebtedness at any time exceed five per centum of the last assessed valuation of the taxable property in such taxing district: . . ."

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