If a county government worker is in downtown Indianapolis for a convention or training and doesn’t want to drive the 30 minutes back home, taxpayers could foot the bill for a hotel room.
That’s the current policy of Johnson County government, which allows tax dollars to be spent on hotel rooms, mileage and airplane tickets for government officials and employees when they attend training or conferences. But now, the county’s three-member board of commissioners, which oversees county employees and pays bills, wants a stricter policy.
“I have a real concern why we’re paying for hotel stays in downtown Indianapolis, whether that be for conferences or mandated state meetings, whatever, and why we’re paying for flights to places like Texas to go to some functions there,” Commissioner Brian Baird said.
“I have a really hard time understanding why the taxpayer would pay for something like that.”
Commissioner Ron West said that, during the past few months, he has started paying closer attention to the travel reimbursement claims the board is asked to approve, and he wants to ask some questions.
“We don’t want someone misusing the funds and abusing the travel policy that we currently have,” West said.
One of the examples commissioners brought up was a recent trip by a county employee who was reimbursed $334 for meals and a three-night stay at an Indianapolis hotel for a conference.
Now, commissioners want to consider stricter policies, including restricting when tax dollars will pay for a hotel room and questioning whether certain trips are necessary.
Taxpayers should not be paying for the cost of a hotel room when the official or employee can drive less than 50 miles to come home, Baird said. He wants to add a restriction that if employees travel within 50 miles of home, they will not be reimbursed for hotel or flight costs but would be reimbursed for gas.
“Those things that they’re staying for that would make it late or not possible to drive home are for social functions that are included in those conferences,” Baird said. “If we choose to stay at those social functions, that’s on us.”
Under the county’s current travel policy, county officials and employees could stay overnight anywhere outside the county, as close as Indianapolis, and be reimbursed for the cost of the hotel room. Expenses are covered for county officials or employees as long as the trip is approved by the manager of their department, according to the policy.
Under the city of Greenwood’s travel policy, any travel expenses including flights, hotel or meals that cost more than $100 must be approved by an employee’s department manager. If employees drive more than 50 miles away and want to be reimbursed for mileage, they have to get the mayor’s approval ahead of time. Flights for city business should be approved at least 10 days in advance if possible by the city controller, according to the policy.
Employees do not have to be within a certain number of miles from home in order to get a hotel room in the policy, according to city policy.
The city of Franklin added travel and expense reimbursement policy to the employee handbook in July. In the policy, tax dollars won’t pay for a hotel room for city employees and officials unless they stay more than 50 miles away from the city. Employees must fill out a claim voucher with all itemized receipts, including food, gas or parking fees, in order to be reimbursed.
In 2010, a prosecutor’s office employee spent two nights in Indianapolis and wanted the $327 hotel bill reimbursed. The county auditor did not approve the claim, since it violated the county’s travel reimbursement policy at the time. Ten years ago, the former White River Township trustee cost taxpayers more than $4,500 for three trips, including a hotel stay in Indianapolis.
Local governments have policies that cover when tax dollars can be used to cover the travel expenses of employees and officials. Here is a look:
What the policy includes: Employees cannot be reimbursed for a hotel stay if they are staying less than 50 miles from the city.
What the policy includes: The mayor must approve trips by employees more than 50 miles from the city. Department managers must approve expenses of more than $100.
What the policy doesn’t include: The city has no restrictions on how close to Greenwood employees can stay and still get reimbursed for a hotel stay.
What the policy includes: Expenses are covered as long as employees or officials get the trip approved by their department manager. Any hotel rooms or meal charges within the county will not be reimbursed.
What the policy doesn’t include: Hotel stays will be covered as long as employees are staying outside the county, but there is no limit on how close the employee could be staying to county offices.