PROSSER — Benton County's new travel policy has two big changes: no more per diem payouts, and a tougher policy to limit the use of personal vehicles for county business.
The net gain should save the county money and reduce the number of questions from the state auditor.
How much money?
That remains to be seen, said county Auditor Brenda Chilton, whose staff will track the receipts.
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David Sparks, county executive, told elected county officials last week that requiring receipts to prove meals, lodging and travel costs are appropriate is a good idea for another reason too.
Sparks said the past few years have had state auditors asking for documentation on expenses "18 months after it was submitted."
By requiring all expense claims to have receipt documentation attached, future problems with the state auditor will be easier to answer, he explained.
In the past two or three audits, there have been audit notes, not findings, that raised questions where better receipt records would have been helpful.
One involved booking a more expensive hotel because there were no more government rate rooms available, and another was when two sheriff's employees traveled to a memorial service for another police officer when county policy made no provision for paying expenses.
Chilton said that kind of expense now is covered under the revised policy.
"We're getting lots of questions, and were trying to work through the issues," she said.
Commissioners approved the new travel policy last month.
Going away from per diem also should reduce payouts, Chilton said.
"Our past travel policy allowed any employee who traveled on county business to collect on per diem, which didn't need receipts. The new policy will require receipts with the per diem as the limit," she said.
The county uses the federal per diem rate for Richland as the standard. It is $88 per night for lodging and $46 per day for meals.
The rates are higher in other areas, such as $139 for lodging and $71 for meals in Seattle, and $86 for lodging and $61 for meals in Spokane.
"There would be some cost savings," said Chilton, but only for county departments that did not already have an internal policy requiring receipts instead of paying per diem.
The new travel policy also sets a limit on same day travel, requiring any travel less than 60 miles one way should not include lodging or meals expenses.
"You are on your own," said Chilton, who explained that the past practice of allowing expenses for county business done out of town but not farther than 60 miles away is now disallowed.
That means no lunch on the county's dime if the meeting is in Walla Walla or Moses Lake. You'll have to go at least as far away as Wenatchee.
An overnight stay within the 60-mile radius would have to be substantiated by showing that it involved early morning meetings or late night meetings, Chilton noted.
The new travel policy also emphasizes using county cars when they are available.
Sparks noted that county employees driving private vehicles to go back and forth between Prosser and the Tri-Cities is getting expensive at the 51-cent-per-mile reimbursement rate.
"A trip between Prosser and Kennewick is $30," she said.
And a round trip to Seattle costs about $300, Chilton noted.
The IRS allows 51 cents as the reimbursement for tax purposes.
The new policy encourages employees to check with other county departments about borrowing a county vehicle for a special trip.
Franklin County's commissioners also are in the middle of evaluating their travel policy, said Chairman Bob Koch on Friday while driving back from a county business meeting in Wenatchee in a county car.
Commissioner Brad Peck and Franklin County's auditor and treasurer are reviewing the policy now.
Commissioner Rick Miller said Franklin County allows per diem and 55 cents per mile when using personal vehicles for county business.
But the economic downturn prompted Franklin County commissioners two years ago to set a limit of $8,000 for each commissioner for travel, Miller noted.
Leo Bowman, Benton County commission chairman, said the new travel policy shows the need to reprioritize when budgets get tight.
"This is an indication that we are looking at everything," he said.