This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
d/b/a Coon's Aggregate Supply Company,
and Coon's Aggregate Supply Company, Inc.,
Town of Solway,
Filed December 11, 2001
Toussaint, Chief Judge
St. Louis County District Court
File No. C599602611
Larry M. Nord, Orman & Nord Law Office, 1301 Miller Trunk Highway, Duluth, MN 55811 (for appellant)
John H. Bray, Clure, Eaton, Ferguson, Bray & Tierney, P.A., Suite 200, 222 West Superior Street, Duluth, MN 55802 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Klaphake, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge
Appellant Christopher Larson, d/b/a Coon’s Aggregate Supply Company, appeals from the district court order denying his motion for a new trial, and, alternatively, for amended findings and conclusions. Because the district court did not err in its conclusions that: (1) the Town Board of Solway Township had statutory authority to adopt and implement a tax on aggregate material; and (2) the tax did not violate the Minnesota or United States Constitutions, we affirm.
On December 9, 1997, before the Minnesota Department of Revenue confirmed that Solway Township had authority to impose a tax on the removal of aggregate material, the Town Board of Solway (the board) met and passed a resolution adopting the option to collect a tax on the removal of aggregate material pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 298.75 (Supp. 1997). On January 5, 1998, the board filed a certificate of approval with the Minnesota Secretary of State as required by Minn. Stat. § 645.021 (1998). The board amended the aggregate tax resolution on January 13, 1998, to include aggregate importers. The Minnesota Department of Revenue confirmed on February 25, 1998, that Solway had the right to decide whether to impose the aggregate tax. The board took up the issue again in the form of a “compliance hearing” during its regular meeting on August 25, 1998. During the March 1999 board meeting, the board explained how the aggregate tax would operate and announced the effective date of April 1, 1999. In April 1999, the board published notice of the implementation of the aggregate tax and began the collection process.
While the board was acting to adopt and implement the tax the Electors of Solway Township (the electors), took up the question of the aggregate tax. At the annual town meeting on March 10, 1998, the electors considered the aggregate tax. The electors voted against a motion to delay implementation of the tax for ten years, but passed a motion to delay the decision on implementing the aggregate tax until the next annual town meeting in 1999. At the next annual town meeting in March 1999, however, the electors only adopted the previous year’s minutes calling for discussion of the tax, but did not discuss the issue. The electors took no other action on the aggregate tax.
The appellant, who is subject to the tax, attended the board’s August 1998 town meeting and received the board’s April 1, 1999, notice via registered mail. All aggregate taxpayers were required to file a quantity report for the period April 1999 through June 30, 1999. Appellant did not file a report and as a result, the board sent appellant a letter on October 21, 1999, estimating that appellant’s aggregate tax was $2,000.
Appellant paid the estimated tax on November 19, 1999, and filed an objection. Appellant filed suit against the Township of Solway challenging the board’s authority to implement the tax. He argues that the electors, not the board, had authority to finally determine whether to adopt and implement the tax. The district court determined that the board had the authority to adopt and implement the aggregate tax and that the tax did not violate the United States or Minnesota Constitutions. This appeal followed.
A reviewing court is not bound by and need not give deference to a district court’s decision on a purely legal issue. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass’n v. Minnesota Pub. Util. Comm’n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984). Statutory construction is a question of law, which this court reviews de novo. Brookfield Trade Ctr., Inc. v. County of Ramsey, 584 N.W.2d 390, 393 (Minn. 1998).
The appellant contends that the court erred in determining that the board had authority to implement the tax. Appellant asserts that the board exceeded its authority by implementing the aggregate tax without first receiving the approval of the electors. The district court concluded that the town board had the statutory authority to implement the aggregate tax and that the board’s implementation was valid. We agree.
Designated counties and townships in Minnesota may impose a tax on the removal of aggregate material. Minn. Stat. § 298.75 (2000). In 1997, the statute was amended to specifically include St. Louis County. 1997 Minn. Laws ch. 231, art. 8, § 12. If the St. Louis County Board failed to adopt the taxing legislation, individual towns, including Solway, were delegated that authority. Id. at § 15.
As a special law, the taxing legislation required approval by a resolution adopted by a majority of the “governing body” of “the local government unit or units affected.” Minn. Stat. § 645.021, subds. 1, 2 (2000). “Governing body” is not defined. Id. The issue here is whether the board or electors constituted the governing body of Solway for purposes of the aggregate tax statute.
At the time Solway took action on the aggregate tax, the board consisted of members elected by the electors of the town to represent them in the daily operation of government. Minn. Stat. § 365.10, subd. 2 (1998). The electors had statutory power to grant the board authority over specific activities, none of which encompasses levying an aggregate tax. Minn. Stat. § 365.10, subd. 17 (Minn. 1998). Otherwise, the board’s powers, set by statute, included authority over “all town affairs not committed to other officers by law.” Minn. Stat. § 366.01, subd. 1 (1998). The board also had specific statutory power to levy certain taxes in amounts approved by the electors. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 365.14 (board may levy taxes to buy or build town buildings); id. §§ 365.16, .18 (1998) (board may annually levy tax for purchase of police and fire equipment).
While there was no specific reservation of the power of taxation to either the board or the electors with regard to the aggregate tax, we conclude that the board had the authority to implement the tax under the aggregate tax statutory scheme. First, the board had broad authority over duties not committed to other units of government, and there is no express legislative requirement that the electors authorize or ratify the board’s decisions to implement or adopt the aggregate tax. Second, the board had statutory authority to levy other taxes for the town. In those instances, the electors were involved only to approve the amount of the taxes. The aggregate tax statute, in contrast, sets the amount of the tax and leaves no such action for the electors. Third, the electors took no action to repudiate the board’s action or to initiate its own. See State Bank of Barnum v. Town of Goodland, 109 Minn. 28, 29, 122 N.W. 468, 469 (Minn. 1909) (when board assumes to perform duties reserved to electors, acts are “at least voidable, unless ratified by the electors”). Fourth, the board’s actions were incidental and necessary to achieve the township’s goal of taxing the responsible parties for the costs of the aggregate industry. Id. (power of board “embraces authority to perform the incidental, necessary acts to accomplish the function of township government.”) Accordingly, the district court did not err in determining that the board had statutory authority to implement the aggregate tax.
This court will not reverse the district court’s judgment merely because we view the evidence differently. Rogers v. Moore, 603 N.W.2d 650, 656 (Minn. 1999) (citation omitted); see Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 474 (Minn. App. 2000) (stating that “the record might support findings other than those made by the [district] court does not show that the * * * findings are defective.”). Rather, the court’s factual findings must be clearly erroneous or “manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole” to warrant reversal. Rogers, 603 N.W.2d at 656 (quotation omitted). “Findings of fact are clearly erroneous only if the reviewing court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Fletcher v. St. Paul Pioneer Press, 589 N.W.2d 96, 101 (Minn. 1999) (quotation omitted). “If there is reasonable evidence to support the district court’s findings, we will not disturb them.” Rogers, 603 N.W.2d at 656 (citation omitted).
The appellant asserts that the district court erred by denying his motion to amend certain findings. The record supports the district court’s findings that: (1) the board unanimously voted to adopt the tax at a public meeting on December 9, 1997, and again on January 28, 1998; (2) in March 1998, the electors held their annual town meeting and passed a motion to defer the implementation of the tax for one year; (3) the electors did not discuss the tax the following year at the March 1999 annual meeting, but the electors adopted the 1998 meeting minutes, which included the previous motion to discuss the tax at the 1999 town meeting; and (4) the board subsequently began to implement the aggregate tax in April 1999. In contrast, the electors took no direct action with regard to the tax. Their motion to delay the decision on whether to implement the tax was not a decision to implement or not implement the tax. In conclusion, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying appellant’s motion for amended findings of fact.
“Evaluating a statute’s constitutionality is a question of law.” Hamilton v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 600 N.W.2d 720, 722 (Minn. 1999) (citations omitted). Accordingly, this court is not bound by the district court’s conclusions. In re Blilie, 494 N.W.2d 877, 881 (Minn. 1993) (quoting Sherek v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 699, 449 N.W.2d 434, 436 (Minn. 1990)). “Minnesota statutes are presumed constitutional, * * * our power to declare a statute unconstitutional must be exercised with extreme caution and only when absolutely necessary.” Hamilton, 600 N.W.2d at 722(citation omitted). A party challenging a statute has the burden of demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt a violation of some provision of the constitution. Id. (citation omitted). When ruling on the constitutionality of an exercise of the legislature’s power of taxation, particular care is required in the review:
Since the members of a legislature necessarily enjoy a familiarity with local conditions which this Court cannot have, the presumption of constitutionality can be overcome only by the most explicit demonstration that a classification is a hostile and oppressive discrimination against particular persons and classes.
Village of Burnsville v. Onischuk, 301 Minn. 137, 151, 222 N.W.2d 523, 531 (1974) (quotation omitted) (quoting San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 41, 93 S. Ct. 1278, 1301 (1973)) (emphasis added).
The appellant challenges the constitutionality of the 1997 amendments to Minn. Stat. § 298.75 by which St. Louis County was expressly empowered to impose the aggregate tax. 1997 Minn. Laws ch. 231, art. 8, § 12 (codified at Minn. Stat. § 298.75 (2000)). Although appellant does not cite a specific constitutional provision violated by the amendments, he relies on the equal protection and the uniformity clause analysis in J.L. Shiely Co. v. Stearns County., 395 N.W. 2d 357 (Minn. 1986). Appellant contends that there is no rational basis for the “limited geographic scope” of the amendment.
In Shiely, the supreme court held that Minn. Stat. § 298.75, before it was amended in 1997, was constitutional. Id. at 361-62. The supreme court stated that “when judging the constitutionality of a statute singling out one geographical area for different treatment, Minnesota has adhered to the general rule that there must be some rational basis for the distinction.” Id. at 360. In examining the basis for distinction among different geographical areas, the court in Shiely looked at the different needs and preferences of the counties, the adverse effect the tax could have on competition, and the regional characteristics of the industry. Id. at 361.
There is evidence in the record that the tax originally was enacted to compensate governmental units for the wear and tear on their streets resulting from gravel hauling and operations. There is also specific evidence of Solway’s needs and preferences. At legislative hearings, Representative Mary Murphy stated that St. Louis County and Solway Township were interested in being included on the list of governmental units authorized to impose an aggregate tax on gravel operations. Hearing on H.F. 773 Before Minnesota Sales & Income Tax Comm. (Apr. 1, 1997) (testimony of Rep. Mary Murphy on proposed amendments to Minn. Stat. § 298.75). Rep. Murphyindicated that Solway Township was particularly interested in the aggregate tax because of the high costs to the township of operations. Id. At trial, Alex Hoffman, a Solway town supervisor, concurred, testifying that the gravel operations impose a hardship on the township. Former City Clerk Cindy Whiting also testified that the township received complaints about gravel operations, specifically related to the noise from the operations and concerns about gravel truck traffic within the township. Therefore, the record amply supports the township’s need and preference for an aggregate tax.
With regard to the adverse effect that the tax may have on competition, the district court found that several of appellant’s competitors are not subject to a similar tax. Despite evidence in the record that appellant had suffered economic harm as a result of the tax, he still remains competitive in the geographic area. The district court also looked at the regional characteristics of the aggregate industry and found that there were a number of gravel mines. The district court determined that a rational basis existed for the 14 townships in St. Louis County to enact an aggregate tax on gravel operations because of the number of gravel mines in the area. A reasonable relationship exists between the tax burden imposed by the aggregate tax and the benefits derived by the township.
The board made concerted efforts to impose the tax on gravel operators that came into contact with the township and provided no exceptions within the governmental unit. The absence of exemptions conforms with the statute’s requirement that counties impose on every operator or importer a production or excise tax measured by the amount of aggregate material removed. See Shiely, 395 N.W.2d at 361-62. The record supports the district court’s finding of a rational basis for the statute and amendments. The appellant failed to meet his burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the statute is unconstitutional under the Minnesota Constitution and has also failed to overcome the presumption of validity under the United States Constitution. Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding the statute is constitutional.
Because the district court has the discretion to grant a new trial, we will not disturb the decision absent clear abuse of that discretion. Halla Nursery, Inc., v. Baumann-Furrie & Co., 454 N.W.2d 905, 910 (Minn. 1990). “On appeal from a denial of a motion for a new trial, the verdict must stand unless it is manifestly and palpably contrary to the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the verdict.” ZumBerge v. Northern States Power Co., 481 N.W.2d 103, 110 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Apr. 29, 1992) (citation omitted). Appellant argues that the district court erred in denying its motion for a new trial. The record supports the court’s findings that the board properly adopted and implemented an aggregate tax on gravel operations. The court also correctly concluded that the board had statutory authority to enact the aggregate tax within the township and that the legislature had a rational basis for the special legislation. Accordingly, the district court’s denial of the motion for a new trial is affirmed.
KLAPHAKE, Judge (dissenting)
I would reverse the district court because the aggregate tax was implemented without proper official action by the Solway Township Board (town board). On January 13, 1998, the town board passed a resolution accepting special legislation allowing the township to impose an aggregate tax. Thereafter, without enacting an ordinance or resolution adopting the tax, Solway Township simply implemented the tax in April 1999.
The district court concluded that implementation of the tax was merely an administrative act that did not require formal action by the town board. This conclusion, however, is in contravention of law requiring official action before a board or other governing body may act. See Minn. Cent. R.R. Co. v. MCI Telecomm. Corp., 595 N.W.2d 533, 537 (Minn. App. 1999) (“A governmental entity can only act through the official action of its board or other governing body.”); Morris v. Perpich, 421 N.W.2d 333, 337 (Minn. App. 1988), review denied (Minn. May 16, 1988) (county board ratification of attorney fees for services of attorney who represented county in removal action not possible without official board action on subject of ratification); see also Minn. Stat. § 365.16.25 (1998) (enumerating formalities required before town enacts ordinances). This conclusion also violates Minnesota's open meeting law, which requires, with limited exceptions, that all meetings of local government must be "open to the public." Minn. Stat. § 471.705, subd. 1 (1998). Because the town board failed to pass a formal ordinance or resolution at a public meeting before implementing the aggregate tax, the tax is void.
I would therefore reverse the district court's decision affirming the imposition of the aggregate tax.