Carbon commissioners chip away at local meal reimbursement policy
|When he's not embroiled in debates over meal reimbursement Commissioner Bill Krompel handles issues like the county airport and its upkeep. Here he heads to a Gulf Stream that spent some time on the tarmac.|
For years they've kept the life of 20,000 residents spread out over 1,476 square miles running smoothly but one issue seems to have stymied Carbon County's board of commissioners - meal reimbursements for county employees.
For the past few months the issue has reared its head at the commission meetings. Workers who travel out of the county regularly in the course of their jobs wanted to know if they could get their meal paid for.
Last Wednesday's meeting was no exception, as Don Marrelli approached the commissioners needing to know how to handle meals for the ambulance drivers. In particular he wanted to know if they did get the meal paid for would it then affect their taxes.
"Do they continue to get reimbursed and then get taxed on it?" Marrelli asked.
One of the revelations as the meal discussion has unfolded was that meal reimbursement for a day trip has to be included as taxable additional income.
With the sting of recent lengthy discussions on the issue fresh in their minds, the commissioners quickly moved to increase the pay for the runs and eliminate specific meal allotments.
Since the initial discussion the issue has grown to encompass the crafting of a new policy and what it would contain.
The responsibility first fell on Christian Bryner, county attorney, and has now been picked up by Rose Barnes the new human resources manager. A confident Barnes strode up to the podium at the May 7 meeting, new policy in hand, offering what appeared to be a solution to some of the meal conundrum.
"The number one thing employees have talked about is VISA cards for the department heads," Barnes said.
The implication of the VISA card being that meals could be charged to them and there eliminating some of the problem. However, it just wasn't that easy and the conversation took off for close to an hour.
Commissioner Mike Milovich was adamant that meal reimbursement not be used by employees as a way of augmenting their income.
"We have people taking the money and pocketing it," he said.
His answer was to require receipts for the meals to show that the money was actually spent.
However, the prospect of playing receipt police did not appear to set well with Bob Pero, county clerk/auditor.
"You mean we would have accounts receivable and we would have to track them down?" he asked.
At the core is determining whether employees are to receive per diem for lodging and meals or if their coverage for out-of-town business will be on a reimbursement basis.
Many non-profit and government agencies have per diem systems. Per diems aren't taxed and can essentially add to overall benefits.
"Per diem is understood to include the additional expenses you have of living away from home - basically having two residences. The IRS sets the maximum amount of per diem each year based on the location - for instance, NYC has a higher rate than Peoria, Ill. Per diem is supposed to be paid on a daily basis, seven days a week, while you're at the remote location. It is not supposed to be tied to your salary, number of hours/days worked, etc. - just a flat daily rate. However, many brokers will try to save money by saying it's only for those days you work, or you get the full amount only if you work a full day, etc," according to an entry in en.wikipedia.org.
Milovich aptly argued for the receipt system.
"Every company has receipts except government," he said. "Companies larger than this county do it (track down receipts) every day."
Other commissioners however, pointed out glitches in the system.
"One person's meal is popcorn," Commissioner Steve Burge said. "How do they come up with enough receipts to cover the allotment?"
As the receipt versus per diem debate volleyed between
commissioners, Barnes brought the focus back to the VISA cards.
"A lot of this will alleviated with the credit cards," she said.
Though it was good try the credit cards brought up another set of problems. A department head in the audience had a question.
"How do I pay you back if I go over my allotment on the credit card?" he asked.
While a final decision was not reached the the commission did decide to eliminate meal allowance for employees on day trips and to instruct department heads to put their meals on the credit cards.
Just when it seemed it was time to move on, another department head was heard.
"This isn't going to fly," said Kathy Hanna-Smith, head of the county tourism board. "I can't ask boardmembers to be reimbursed. This isn't going to be a cookie-cutter thing."
The commission finally moved on to East Carbon Mayor Orlando LaFontaine who had come looking for a donation to an event in his city.
"I hope it's not for meals," Commissioner Bill Krompel said laughing.