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Work on Private Property

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Reviewed Date: April 21, 2020

Original Author: 
Huffer, Dennis
Date of Material: 
Nov 21, 2001

Finance--Use of public funds

Work on Private Property

MTAS was asked about a city doing drainage work on private property.

November 21, 2001

Re: Work on private property.

Dear Mayor:

Your consultant asked me to write you about the city doing drainage work on private property. It is my understanding that the city did not cause the problems that are proposed to be addressed and that the general public will derive little or no benefit from the city doing the work. In my opinion this would be a questionable use of public resources.

Article II , § 29 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that “ The General Assembly shall have power to authorize the several counties and incorporated towns in this State, to impose taxes for County and Corporation purposes, respectively....” From this language has grown the public purpose doctrine, which dictates that public funds can be used only for public purposes. Courts have reasoned that, since taxes can be levied for only corporation or public purposes, expenditures can legally be made for only those same purposes. A public purpose is generally anything that promotes the public health, safety, welfare, morals, security, prosperity, or contentment of the residents of the municipality. Shelby Co. v Exposition Company, 96 Tenn. 653, 36 S.W. 696(1896). Incidental benefit to an individual or individuals will not invalidate an expenditure, but its primary purpose must be to benefit the public. City of Chattanooga v. Harris, 223 Tenn. 51, 442 S.W.2d 602 (1969).

From information that has been provided to me, it appears the primary purpose of the expenditure of public resources in the case at hand would be for the private benefit of the property owners and not for the general public. Any benefit to the general public would be remote at best. Therefore, it is my opinion that this expenditure would be held invalid if challenged.

I hope this information is helpful. If you need further assistance, please call.


Dennis Huffer
MTAS Legal Consultant

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