By Richard Sullins | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Lee County’s commissioners travel to out-of-state meetings on official business, they’re allowed to be reimbursed for the costs of their meals and incidental expenses incurred while on the trip. The mechanics of how that process should work caused the board to spin its wheels for about 15 minutes on Monday as they walked a tightwire between their obligations to taxpayers and the constraints of their own wallets.
In the early 1990s, a previous board of commissioners had adopted a flat rate of $150 per day as reimbursement for the costs of their meals and incidental expenses (such as baggage tips), as well as to help offset the costs of a spouse or guest who might be traveling with them.
Republican Commissioner Bill Carver had requested the board consider changing that policy to one that aligns more closely with the one that governs the process for reimbursing traveling staff members. That method, known as “per diem,” is set annually by the federal government and establishes limits on the amounts for meals and incidentals for which they may request to be reimbursed. The amounts usually vary depending on location.
Carver’s proposal would have scrapped the $150 per day allowance altogether. That policy had allowed any commissioner in traveling status to be paid that amount regardless of what their meals and incidentals may have cost. If they were more, the commissioner was responsible for paying them out of their own pocket, but if they were less, they were free to keep the difference. The idea seems to have been that it all eventually balances out.
“I don’t think that we as commissioners should be compensated for more than what our business expenses come to,” Carver said. “Why should I go to a conference and come back with money in my pocket that is in excess of what my business expenses were?”
Republican Vice Chair Dr. Andre Knecht asked County Manager Lisa Minter for her recommendation. Minter explained that travel reimbursement policies are put in place at the pleasure of the board and although she had no documentation to see why commissioners adopted the $150 flat rate three decades ago, she speculated that it could have been to provide the members with the most advantageous way of counting that income for tax purposes.
Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives saw the issue from another angle. The two ways that were proposed Monday count reimbursements for travel at different stages in the process and thus may indeed have differing tax implications.
“I’d rather see us having the option of going either way based on what each commissioner thinks is best for them from a tax perspective,” he said.
Reives offered a motion that would allow individual commissioners the freedom to choose either method of being reimbursed, an option favored by Republican Chairman Kirk Smith.
“To be honest with you, I don’t like taking junkets on the county’s dime. I would just like to be reimbursed for driving all those distances,” Smith said.
Reives’ motion passed in a 6-1 vote, with Carver alone voting against it. The final motion to allow commissioners to choose their method of reimbursement then passed unanimously, but the discussion wasn’t over yet.
As the meeting later moved toward its conclusion, Carver returned with the thrust of his original argument.
“I think we are making a mistake to set ourselves up as people who have the right to make the choice to take money that’s not otherwise expended on a conference. I just don’t think that sells very well,” he said.
Republican Commissioner Taylor Vorbeck defended her vote to provide the reimbursement options, saying that she took time off from her business to attend conferences “so that I can grow and learn, not to make money. I’m a good steward of the taxpayers’ money. Any inference outside of that needs to be within your own feelings and not projected onto the rest of us.”
After asking those present to continue praying for worldwide peace following the uprisings against Israel and Gaza, Reives looked at Carver with an appeal for a more personal peace. The two are sometimes at odds over issues and their disagreements, though always civil, take on an air of intensity that causes all to take notice.
“I’m not going to address your comment about the $150 tonight,” he said to his colleague on the other side of the room, “but I’m asking for peace.”