Caulfield v. Noble

Decision Date26 June 1979
Citation420 A.2d 1160,178 Conn. 81
PartiesRobert L. CAULFIELD v. Henry S. NOBLE et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Robert L. Caulfield, pro se, appellant (plaintiff).

George C. Hastings, Hartford, with whom, on the brief, was Ira Hicks, New Canaan, for appellees (defendants).

Before COTTER, C. J., and LOISELLE, BOGDANSKI, LONGO and PETERS, JJ.

LONGO, Associate Justice.

The plaintiff, a resident and taxpayer of the town of New Canaan, appeals from a judgment of the Superior Court denying his application for a writ of mandamus in which he sought, inter alia, to compel the defendant selectmen, tax collector and members of the New Canaan board of finance to fix a new mill rate for the town for the fiscal year 1977, which began September 1, 1976.

The essential facts, as stipulated by the parties in the trial court and disclosed in the court's finding, reveal the following: On October 19, 1976, the board of finance of New Canaan met in official session and fixed the mill rate to be applied to the grand list for the town for fiscal 1977 at 46.3 mills. In December, 1976, the audit of the fiscal year ending August 31, 1976 was completed and showed a general fund surplus amount available for appropriation ultimately tabulated to be $639,467.66. In setting the mill rate at 46.3 for fiscal 1977, the board of finance did not apply any of the general fund surplus available for appropriation toward the amount to be raised by taxation for fiscal 1977, under the authority of § C5-28 of the New Canaan charter, which reads in pertinent part as follows: "(u)nexpended cash balances remaining at the end of any fiscal year may, by resolution of the Board of Finance, be either transferred to a surplus account or subtracted from the amount the Town Council has authorized to be raised by taxation for the ensuing fiscal year." The town selectmen later imposed a tax based on the 46.3 mill rate.

The plaintiff filed suit in January, 1977, claiming that the defendants had wrongfully set the mill rate and corresponding real property tax for fiscal 1977, and sought relief by way of a judgment of mandamus, basing his contentions on § 7-344 1 of the General Statutes as interpreted by the Superior Court in Holmes v. Beckwith, 11 Conn.Sup. 215 (1942), in which the court interpreted § 7-344 to mean that a cash surplus in the general fund at the end of the fiscal year should be applied in reducing the amount of the estimated expenditures for the ensuing year in order to determine the rate of tax to be layed upon the taxable property for such year.

The trial court disagreed, finding that the board of finance had properly acted in accordance with its charter, § C5-28, in setting the mill rate for fiscal 1977 and in not applying the general fund surplus in reduction of the amount to be raised by taxation in fiscal 1977; that neither General Statutes § 7-344 nor the decision in Holmes v. Beckwith, supra, controlled over the specific authority of § C5-28 of the charter; that since § C5-28 of the charter was enacted after the predecessor of § 7-344 of the General Statutes the former provision was controlling; and that there was no judicial presumption in favor of the plaintiff's claim that § C5-28 was preempted by § 7-344 of the General Statutes. From the rendition of judgment in favor of the defendants, the plaintiff has appealed to this court.

I

The plaintiff first assigns error in the failure of the trial court to take account of the claimed "judicial presumption" in favor of taxpayers set forth in this court's decision in Levin-Townsend Computer Corporation v. Hartford, 166 Conn. 405, 409, 349 A.2d 853, 855 (1974), in which it was stated that "(d) oubts as to the taxing authority of the municipality must be resolved in favor of the taxpayer." It appears that the plaintiff argues that a presumption of validity attaches to his claim that § C5-28 of the New Canaan charter is preempted by § 7-344 of the General Statutes. The answer to the plaintiff's argument in this respect may be found by referring to the source of the above quotation; Curtis v. Corbin, 93 Conn. 648, 657, 107 A. 506, 509 (1919); in which this court stated that any judicial presumption in favor of a taxpayer's suit is limited to cases of clear statutory ambiguity: "The mere fact that there may be differences of opinion so that a judicial determination has to be obtained, or that one construction may lead to a heavier tax than another, is not enough. We think this doctrine applies only in case of a clear ambiguity in language which substantially leaves the statute equally open to different interpretations ...." In the present case there is "clear ambiguity" in neither § C5-28 of the charter nor § 7-344 of the General Statutes. Cf. Hartford Electric Light Co. v. Wethersfield, 165 Conn. 211, 219, 332 A.2d 83 (1973); Consolidated Diesel Electric Corporation v. Stamford, 156 Conn. 33, 36, 238 A.2d 410 (1968). In contrast, the plaintiff merely seeks a judicial determination as to which law controls the activities of the New Canaan board of finance in connection with the disposition of the cash surplus and the setting of a corresponding mill rate for fiscal 1977. If the result of that determination disfavors the plaintiff, a heavier tax may follow. In such circumstances, no judicial presumption of validity attaches to the plaintiff's claims. Curtis v. Corbin, supra, 93 Conn. 657, 107 A. 506.

II

The plaintiff next claims that the town is required under General Statutes § 7-344 and the decision in Holmes v. Beckwith, 11 Conn.Sup. 215 (1942), to apply a cash surplus accumulated at the end of any fiscal year in reduction of the rate of tax to be levied for the following year. The defendants respond that § C5-28 of the town charter authorizes them, under a proper interpretation of municipal authority under the Home Rule Act, General Statutes §§ 7-187-7-201, and as a matter of statutory construction, either to retain a year end surplus in a surplus account or to apply the surplus to reduce the amount of revenue to be raised by taxes in the ensuing fiscal year.

A

We appear not to have addressed the precise issue whether the local autonomy conferred upon municipalities by the Home Rule Act to govern, inter alia, matters of real property taxation and the fixing of a corresponding mill rate ought to supersede the provisions of a related section of the General Statutes dealing with the scope of municipal authority to tax. 2 The purpose, however, of Connecticut's Home Rule Act is clearly twofold: to relieve the General Assembly of the burdensome task of handling and enacting special legislation of local municipal concern and to enable a municipality to draft and adopt a home rule charter or ordinance which shall constitute the organic law of the city, superseding its existing charter and any inconsistent special acts. General Statutes § 7-188; Sloane v. Waterbury, 150 Conn. 24, 26-27, 183 A.2d 839 (1962); State ex rel. Sloane v. Reidy, 152 Conn. 419, 209 A.2d 674 (1965); Shalvoy v. Curran, 393 F.2d 55, 59 (2d Cir. 1968); see Littlefield, "Municipal Home Rule-Connecticut's Mature Approach," 37 Conn.B.J. 390, 402 (1963); 56 Am.Jur.2d, Municipal Corporations, § 126; 62 C.J.S. Municipal Corporations, § 124. The rationale of the act, simply stated, is that issues of local concern are most logically answered locally, pursuant to a home rule charter, exclusive of the provisions of the General Statutes. 3 See Lockard, "Home Rule for Connecticut's Municipalities," 29 Conn.B.J. 51, 54 (1955). Moreover, home rule legislation was enacted "to enable municipalities to conduct their own business and control their own affairs to the fullest possible extent, in their own way ... upon the principle that the municipality itself knew better what it wanted and needed than did the state at large, and to give that municipality the exclusive privilege and right to enact direct legislation which would carry out and satisfy its wants and needs." Fragley v. Phelan, 126 Cal. 383, 387, 58 P. 923, 925 (1899); accord 1 Antieau, Municipal Corporation Law, § 3.03; 1 McQuillan, Municipal Corporations (2d Ed.) § 93.

In furtherance of this stated goal of home rule legislation, it has been held that a general law, in order to prevail over a conflicting charter provision of a city having a home rule charter, must pertain to those things of general concern to the people of the state, and it cannot deprive cities of the right to legislate on purely local affairs germane to city purposes. Portland v. Welch, 154 Or. 286, 59 P.2d 228 (1936); see 62 C.J.S. Municipal Corporations § 125; 5 McQuillan, Municipal Corporations (3d Ed 1969 Rev.), § 15.20 (issues relating strictly to municipal affairs are within the exclusive delegated power of municipalities coming under home rule). In the numerous jurisdictions having either constitutional or legislative municipal home rule, the overwhelming view accords to the municipality the fullest extent of home rule authority, consistent with law, in matters of local concern. See, e. g., Littlefield, "Municipal Home Rule-Connecticut's Mature Approach," supra; Klemme, "The Powers of Home Rule Cities in Colorado," 36 Colorado L.Rev. 321 (1964). 4

B

Against this background, we must decide whether the town was authorized to withhold the general fund surplus available for appropriation for fiscal 1977, pursuant to § C5-28 of the town charter, and to impose a corresponding mill rate, notwithstanding the provisions of § 7-344 of the General Statutes, and its interpretive decision, Holmes v. Beckwith, 11 Conn.Sup. 215 (1942). We have determined that the town was authorized, pursuant to its charter, to withhold the general fund surplus, and to set a corresponding mill rate.

It is axiomatic that, in Connecticut, the power to levy taxes is vested in the General Assembly; Kellems v. Brown, 163 Conn. 478, 487, 313 A.2d 53 (1972), appeal dismissed, 409 U.S....

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