The Town of Argonne is a small community in northern Wisconsin, near Michigan’s upper peninsula. For more than 60 years, the Town has removed snow from residents’ private driveways upon request. The Town handled snow removal pursuant to contracts, funding the work through fees paid for the service and not through tax revenues. The Town’s road-crew employees performed the contracted snow removal work, which brought in more fee revenue than the work cost to perform. The Town did not provide snow removal services for private roads or parking lots. In 2014, the Town adopted a resolution enunciating this longstanding policy. Id.
In 2015, three local residents engaged in the business of snow plowing brought a declaratory judgment action seeking to invalidate the Town’s resolution. The plaintiffs alleged that the Town’s snow plowing work served no public purpose because private companies were available to do such work. Generally speaking, no local government may legislate on a matter that does not serve a public purpose. See Town of Beloit v. County of Rock, 2003 WI 8, ¶21, 259 Wis. 2d 37, 657 N.W.2d 344. Both the plaintiffs and the Town moved for summary judgment.
The circuit court granted the plaintiffs’ motion. The court acknowledged that Wis. Stat. § 86.105 specifically authorizes municipalities to contract for snow removal from private driveways. And it recognized that the Town did not rely on tax revenue for removing snow from private driveways. Nonetheless, the court agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that, because private entities were available to provide snow plowing services, the Town’s contracts to do so served no public purpose and were therefore not authorized by law.
The court of appeals disagreed. The court explained that under the public purpose doctrine, public funds can be expended only for public purposes. Samz v. Town of Argonne, No. 2015AP267 (Wis. Ct. App. April 11, 2017) (per curiam), ¶7. A court is not to overrule the determination of what constitutes a public purpose unless that determination is “‘manifestly arbitrary or unreasonable.’” Id. (quoted source omitted). The court concluded that the Town’s determination that there was a public purpose in contracting for snow removal from private driveways was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable, citing numerous examples of how such plowing benefited the public. Id., ¶8. The court also distinguished the Town’s resolution from actions invalidated in prior court decisions, because, in this case, the Town did not rely on taxpayer funding to conduct the challenged service. Id., ¶¶9-10.
Importantly, the court explicitly rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that no public benefit can exist where a private entity could provide the same services the municipality is undertaking. Id., ¶12. The court cited prior case law rejecting this broad proposition, and explained that such a holding would put courts in the unworkable position of determining whether there were sufficient private services available to obviate a public purpose. Id., ¶¶12-14. While this case was decided per curiam—without one judge acknowledging authorship of the opinion—and therefore lacks precedential value under Wis. Stat. § 809.23(3), the decision pulls together a number of prior decisions and clearly asserts that the public purpose doctrine is not defeated any time a municipality engages in services that a private entity could alternatively provide.