United States v. Fort Scott/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

99 U.S. 152

United States  v.  Fort Scott

The vital question upon this writ of error is, whether the city is under a legal obligation to impose, in satisfaction of the relator's judgment, a tax upon all the taxable property of the city. If so, the judgment dismissing the information should be reversed; otherwise, it must be affirmed.

It is contended by counsel for the plaintiff that as the judgment for the debt has never been modified or reversed, the city is estopped, in this proceeding, to say that the relator was entitled only to a levy upon the property specially benefited. A determination of that question does not seem asbolutely necessary in view of our conclusions upon other issues presented in the case. We therefore waive its consideration, and proceed to an examination of the statute of March 2, 1871, under which the bands were issued. We are the more inclined to pursue this course because of his frank concession, that perhaps the purpose of the learned judge who framed the order of dismissal was to reserve the real question in controversy for determination when proceedings for mandamus should come before him.

In our examination of the statute of March 2, 1871, we are impressed with a strong conviction that the legislature intended to confer upon cities coming within its provisions the amplest authority, not only to incur obligations for all legitimate municipal purposes, but to meet promptly every obligation thus incurred. Unusual care seems to have been taken to guard the financial credit of such cities by provisions which, if enforced, would not only give confidence to creditors, but render municipal repudiation impossible. This care is manifested in the section which requires the council to establish a sinking-fund for the redemption, at maturity, of 'the bonded indebtedness of the city,' that fund to be supplied by taxes, payable only in cash. It is further showin in the section which both authorizes and requires sufficient taxation annually on all taxable property within the city to meet the interest as it matures 'on all the bonds of the city.' It is still further indicated in the section which declares that the council 'may . . . provided for the payment of the debts and expenses of the city.' No express restriction is imposed as to the mode in which such provision may be made, except that, when necessary, 'any and all indebtedness of the city' may be met by issuing funding bonds, the interest upon which may be paid by taxation 'on all the property of the city, in addition to other taxes.' A faithful exercise of the powers thus conferred would seem to be sufficient to secure the prompt satisfaction of any municipal indebtedness incurred in accordance with the provisions of the statute of 1871. That the bonds for the amount of which the relator obtained judgment constitute a 'debt,' or a portion of 'the bonded indebtedness' of the city, within the meaning of the statute, cannot well be doubted. The ordinance which required the improvements in question in terms directs that the cost thereof 'shall be paid for in the bonds of the city,' to be signed by the mayor, attested by the city clerk under the corporate seal of the city, and countersigned by the city treasurer. Further, each bond declares upon its face that it is a 'special improvement bond of the city of Fort Scott, Kansas;' and that the city, 'for value recived, acknowledges itself to owe, and promises to pay to the holder' the amount thereof. Still further, the statute under which the ordinance was framed authorizes the council to pay the cost of such special improvements by issuing 'the bonds of the city.' Finally, the bonds were negotiated by the city authorities, by whom the proceeds were received and expended under the direction of the council. They constitute, therefore, in every just sense, debts which the city, in its corporate capacity, is under a statutory and legal obligation to provide for in some effectual, substantial manner.

But, in behalf of the city, it is urged that the holder of these bonds must, by the terms of the statute, and the ordinance of Jan. 22, 1872, look for payment exclusively to assessments upon the property specially improved and benefited. It is contended that such was the purpose of the city, of which the purchaser had constructive notice in the reference, in the marginal statement upon the bonds, both to sects. 16 and 17 of the act of March 2, 1871, and to the ordinance passed by the council. To that interpretation of the contract we cannot yield our assent. It is true that sect. 17 declares that 'for the payment of said bonds' assessments shall be made 'upon the taxable property chargeable therewith;' that is, 'on all lots and pieces of ground to the centre of the block, extending along the street or avenue, the distance improved.' But it is neither expressly nor by necessary implication provided that the holder of the bonds may not be paid in some other mode, or that the city will not, under the authority derived from other sections of the statute, comply with its promise to pay the bonds, with interest, at maturity. As between the city and its tax-payers, it was certainly it duty, through the council, to provide, if practicable, payment by taxation upon the property improved, rather than upon all the taxable property within its corporate limits. But the duty to make such distribution of the burden of special improvements did not lessen its obligation, in accordance with its express agreement, to pay the interest and principal of the bonds at maturity. Hitchcock v. Galveston, 96 U.S. 341.

The main difficulty comes from the peculiar phraseology of the city ordinance prescribing the source from which the means for the payment of the bonds should be obtained. The statement in the ordinance that the bonds 'shall be paid, principal and interest, solely from special assessments, to be made upon and collected solely from the lots and pieces of ground fronting upon or extending along the street the distance improved,' should be regarded only as an expression, in emphatic terms, of the purpose and duty of the city, as between all its tax-payers, to impose the cost of the proposed improvements upon the property specially benefited. There is no reason to presume that the ordinance was intended to mean more than the statute under which it was enacted. The general reference, upon the margin of the bonds, to the ordinance under which the improvement was projected should not, in view of the general powers of the council, as declared in the statute, be held as qualifying or lessening the unconditional promise of the city, set forth in the body of the bonds, itself to pay the bonds, with their prescribed interest, at maturity. The agreement is, that the city shall pay the interest and principal at maturity. There is no reservation, as against the purchasers of the bonds, of a right, under any circumstances, to withhold payment at maturity, or to postpone payment until the city should obtain, by special assessments upon the improved property, the means with which to make payment, or to withhold payment altogether, if the special assessments should prove inadequate for payment. Experience informs us that the city would have met with serious, if not insuperable, obstacles in its negotiations had the bonds upon their face, in unmistakable terms, declared that the purchaser had no security beyond the assessments upon the particular property improved. If the corporate authorities intended such to be the contract with the holders of the bonds, the same good faith which underlies and pervades the statute of March 2, 1871, required an explicit avowal of such purpose in the bond itself, or, in some other form, by language, brought home to the purchaser, which could neither mislead nor be misunderstood.

In this case, it is alleged by the city that the special assessments required by the seventeenth section of the act of 1871 were duly made before the maturity of the bonds, and that all amounts collected in that mode have been promptly paid over by the city to holders of such bonds. But the unquestioned fact remains, that the bonds, with some interest, held by the relator, were not met at maturity as the city agreed that they should be. They are still unpaid. The special assessments made have, from some cause not explained in the auswer of the city, proven wholly insufficient. Nor does it appear that they will ever prove sufficient for the payment of the relator's judgment. The corporate authorities repudiate all legal obligation upon the part of the city to provide payment in any other mode or from any other source, a position which we hold to be untenable and in violation of a plain duty imposed by statute. We are of opinion that the council has the power, under this statute, to provide for the payment of the relator's judgment by taxation upon all the taxable property within the city, and such should have been the judgment of the court below. A discharge of that duty will in nowise interfere with the right of the council to reimburse the city, if that be now possible, for all amounts thus paid, out of special assessments upon the property primarily chargeable with the cost of the work on account of which the bonds were issued.

The judgment will be reversed, with directions for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion; and it is

So ordered.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).