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AGO 1958 No. 157 - February 14, 1958
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington



A county is not legally authorized to lease passenger vehicles which may be used both by county and by the employee personally with the cost to be divided between the two.

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                                                                February 14, 1958

Honorable Lee J. Reynolds
Prosecuting Attorney
Clallam County
Kuppler Building
Port Angeles, Washington                                                                                        Cite as:  AGO 57-58 No. 157

Attention:  Mr. Frank B. Platt, Deputy

Dear Sir:

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

            May a county lease passenger vehicles for the use of various county departments, dividing the cost of rental between the county and the individual user, so that the vehicle may be used for county purposes, and in addition, for the personal affairs of the employee?

            We answer your question in the negative.


            RCW Title 36 provides, in large measure, the powers granted to the county governments by the legislature.  RCW 36.01.010 provides, in part, as follows:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "The several counties in this state shall have capacity as bodies corporate . . . to make such contracts, and to purchase and hold such personal property, as may be necessary to their corporate or administrative powers, and to do all other necessary acts in relation to all the property of the county."

            It is also elementary, since counties have the same status as other municipal corporations, that boards of county commissioners have only such powers as have been granted to them, expressly or by necessary implication, by the constitution and statutes of the state.  Sasse v. King County, 196 Wash. 242,State ex rel. Taylor v. Superior Court, 2 Wn. (2d) 575.

            There is no express provision, either in the powers granted the board of county commissioners (RCW 36.32.120) or in the general powers granted counties, permitting the county to lease personalty.  It therefore becomes necessary to determine whether this type of transaction is authorized by necessary implication from powers expressly granted.

            By the above cited statute, counties are permitted to "purchase and hold" personal property.  A county is, then, authorized to expend its funds to purchase personal property, within the confines of its statutory powers.  It is generally conceded that the authority to purchase being the greater of the powers to be exercised, the lesser power to lease or to accept as a donation is necessarily included therein.  Galloway v. Road Improvement District No. 4 of Prairie County, 143 Ark. 338, 220 S.W. 450.  Such was the tenor of an opinion of this office to the Honorable Lloyd Shorett, Prosecuting Attorney of King County, in June of 1944.  Further weight is given this proposition by RCW 46.16.020, which provides in part as follows:

            "Any vehicle owned,rented, or leased by the state, or by any county . . . and used exclusively by it . . . shall be exempt from the payment of license fees for the licensing thereof; . . ." (Emphasis supplied.)

            It seems equally clear that an employee of a county, as an individual, could lease an automobile, use it for both personal and county business, and present a claim to the county for mileage as provided in RCW 36.17.030.

            However, if a county were inclined to exercise its implied authority to lease personalty, the property so acquired would necessarily become county property  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] for the term of the lease.  The county is authorized to purchase and hold property only for public use, and such property, once acquired and devoted to public use, cannot be alienated without legislative authority, either express or implied.  Carpenter v. Okanogan County, 163 Wash. 18.  The case above cited dealt specifically with real property, but there is no reason to believe that a different rule would be applied should a question arise concerning personalty.

            Thus, the disposition of such property for the personal use of an employee, whether in the nature of a sublease or rental, would be unlawful, as beyond the scope of the statutory authority given the board of county commissioners or the county generally.  Neither is there any grant of power which would permit the county to join with an employee in the execution of the original lease agreement.

            The provision that the several counties may do all other necessary acts in relation to all the property of the county has not been construed as giving the county commissioners license to go beyond their statutory powers.  SeeSmith v. Lamping, 27 Wash. 624.

            Accordingly, it is our conclusion that the contemplated resolution would be beyond the scope of express or implied powers granted the several counties by the legislature.

            We trust the foregoing satisfactorily answers your inquiry.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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