County travel policy gets approval

If county government employees want to travel out of state for a conference or training on taxpayer dollars, they have to make one stop first.

The Johnson County Commissioners want to review the proposed trip and decide whether employees attend — and whether to spend the money.

That review, and changes that forbid using public money to stay in a hotel within 50 miles, have been made to the county employees’ travel policy after commissioner Brian Baird questioned how county workers were using taxpayer money earlier this year.

Since the county commissioners approve all travel claims, Baird noticed trips to California and overnight stays in cities as close as Indianapolis, which should not have been covered by the taxpayers, he said.

“We didn’t really think that kind of travel was warranted with taxpayers’ dollars,” Commissioner Ron West said.

The new policy, which sets stricter rules or clarifies portions of the original policy, will go into effect June 1.

For example, in the previous policy, county officials could not use taxpayers’ money to spend the night in a hotel in Johnson County. But there was no rule against staying overnight in a neighboring county, such as Marion County. Now, employees will have to pay for their own hotel stays if they spend the night within 50 miles of their home or the courthouse, whichever is closer.

The changes will require all county employees to ask permission and explain why an out-of-state conference is necessary. In February, commissioners approved a trip to Michigan for the Johnson County Highway Department for a conference at a cost of $490 per person. The trip was approved because the employees learned new techniques for snow plowing at last year’s conference that saved the department money this winter, they said.

But Baird and West expect to deny more requests for out-of-state travel.

“There will be requests, and I’m sure there will be ones that we deny,” Baird said.

“If practices are continued as they were, then I’m sure there will be ones that we deny.”

Baird and West both presented their own versions of a proposed new travel policy during the last two months, and the two compromised to create new rules. West wanted to ensure that county employees were safe when staying overnight for a conference or state-mandated meetings. Additional safety measures, such as including a clause where valet parking is an acceptable use of taxpayer money if it is the safest option, were included in the new policy.

“We actually tried to make it more accommodating in some respects, in regard to safety of the employees,” West said. “We were concerned about that.”

With the new policy, more restrictions were placed on how much money employees get for their meals while traveling. The previous policy did not outline specific amounts and relied on national standards. While Baird wanted to set a limit of $28 per day, the commissioners agreed to a cap of $35 per day. After the trip, employees have to provide receipts. As before, alcohol will not be covered.

Franklin employees get $35 per day as well. Greenwood city employees have a meal allowance of $40 per day while traveling.

The commissioners will review the policy on an annual basis, which was not done before. The last time the travel policy was amended was in 2008.

At a glance

The Johnson County Commissioners have approved a new employee travel policy, which requires more approval before county employees can spend taxpayer money on trips.

Here’s a look at some of the changes in the new policy:

  • Meal allowances for employees when traveling out of town is set at $35 per day.
  • Any out-of-state trips must be approved by the Johnson County Commissioners at least 60 days in advance.
  • No overnight stays will be paid with taxpayers’ money if it is within 50 miles of the courthouse or the employee’s  home
  • County employees can use taxpayer dollars to cover valet parking if that is the safest or cheapest cost possible.
  • The travel policy will be reviewed on an annual basis.