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decided: February 20, 1899.



Author: Harlan

[ 173 U.S. Page 232]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

The plaintiff in error, a municipal corporation of Kentucky, insists that by the final judgment of the Court of Appeals of that Commonwealth sustaining the validity of certain taxation of its water-works property, it has been deprived of rights secured by that clause of the Constitution of the United States which prohibits any State from passing a law impairing the obligation of contracts. That is the only question which this court has jurisdiction to determine upon this writ of error. Rev. Stat. § 709.

By an act of the general assembly of Kentucky approved May 1, 1886, the city of Covington was authorized to build a water reservoir or reservoirs within or outside its corporate limits, either in the county of Kenton or in any county adjacent thereto, and acquire by purchase or condemnation in fee

[ 173 U.S. Page 233]

     simple the lands necessary for such reservoirs, and connect the same with the water-pipe system then existing in the city; to build a pumping house near or adjacent to the Ohio River, and provide the same with all necessary machinery and appliances, together with such lands as might be needed for the pumping house, and for connecting it with said reservoir or reservoirs. § 21.

The declared object of that legislation was that the city and its citizens might be provided with an ample supply of pure water for all purposes. To that end the city was authorized and empowered, by its board of trustees, to issue and sell bonds to an amount not exceeding $600,000, payable in not more than forty years after date, with interest at a rate not exceeding five per cent per annum -- such bonds not, however, to be issued until the question of issuing them and the question of the location of the reservoir or reservoirs, whether above or below the city, should first be submitted to the qualified voters of the corporation at an election held for that purpose and approved by a majority of the votes cast.

By section 31 of the act it was provided that "said reservoir or reservoirs, machinery, pipes, mains and appurtenances, with the land upon which they are situated, shall be and remain forever exempt from state, county and city tax." Ky. Acts, 1885-6, c. 897, p. 317.

A subsequent act, approved February 15, 1888, authorized the city, in execution of the provisions of the act of 1886, to issue and sell bonds to the additional amount of $400,000. Ky. Acts, 1887-8, c. 137, p. 221.

The scheme outlined in these acts received the approval of the majority of the votes cast at an election held in the city, and thereafter bonds to the amount of $600,000 and $400,000 were issued in the name of the city and disposed of.

The proceeds of the bonds were duly applied by the city in building water reservoirs, in constructing the requisite approaches, pipes and mains, in acquiring the lands necessary for the reservoirs and for its approaches and connections, in erecting a pumping house and providing it with necessary machinery and appliances, and in buying land for a pumping house

[ 173 U.S. Page 234]

     and the connection thereof by pipes and mains with the reservoirs.

The entire works upon their completion passed under the control of the city which managed the same until March 19, 1894, by the Commissioners of Water Works, under the act of March 31, 1879, c. 121, Ky. Acts, 1879, p. 93; and since March 19, 1894, they have been controlled under the act of that date, c. 100, by a board, subject to such regulations as the city by ordinance might provide. Ky. Acts, 1894, p. 278. By the latter act it was also provided that the net revenue derived from its water works by any city of the second class -- to which class the city of Covington belongs -- should be applied exclusively [Illegible Word] the improvement or reconstruction of its streets and other public ways.

When the above act of May 1, 1886, was passed there was in force a general statute of Kentucky, passed February 14, 1856, which provided, as to all charters and acts of incorporation granted after that date, that "all charters and grants of or to corporations, or amendments thereof, and all other statutes, shall be subject to amendment or repeal at the will of the legislature, unless a contrary intent be therein plainly expressed: Provided, That whilst privileges and franchises so granted may be changed or repealed, no amendment or repeal shall impair other rights previously vested;" and that "when any corporation shall expire or be dissolved, or its corporate rights and privileges shall cease by reason of a repeal of its charter or otherwise, and no different provision is made by law, all its works and property, and all debts payable to it shall be subject to the payment of debts owing ...

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