Opinion: Receipts are a good 'investment'

Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

This is not an accusation or even a question of character. I respect the work county supervisors, like the ones in Clay County, do every day to serve the taxpayers who elected them. Instead, this is a bit of advice.

For years, Clay County supervisors have operated under a policy that when they travel on county business, they don’t have to file detailed receipts for their expenditures. Instead, they just fill in the per diem allowed by law — $56 — on an expense form for each day they were gone.

Plane tickets, cab fares and similar costs do require a receipt.

As an example, supervisors Shelton Deanes and R.B. Davis recently flew to Washington D.C. to lobby for federal funding for local projects. While their complete expense reports aren’t filed yet because credit card bills for plane tickets haven’t been processed through the county’s credit card, their meal reports only show the $56 per diem for each of the seven days they were gone.

Again, I am not doubting them. And I am not suggesting they took advantage of taxpayers. Having lived and worked in Washington, I know it’s expensive. It doesn’t take much to spend $56 on three meals a day.

But not disclosing their expenses leaves them open to innuendo and suggestion.

For a group of elected officials who constantly are watching dollars, it might be a good idea to lead by example. That includes adopting a policy that requires detailed expense reports, including receipts. West Point, Columbus, Lowndes County and most other local governments already do.

Some oppose the idea because they don’t want voters to know what they might do on those trips. For instance, if they go out to an expensive restaurant and have a couple of adult beverages, they might not want their constituents to think they were extravagant.

By hiding that information, the elected official is cheating the people they represent. No one minds them enjoying themselves, either on the road or at home. In fact, most reasonable people probably expect it.

And if the bill is more than $56, that’s OK. A good steak in Washington can easily be $35 and even a hamburger can run $15. Regardless of how much they spend or what it is spent on, only $56 is reimbursed. But at least the public knows.

And it might win supervisors some brownie points with voters if they don’t actually spent the full amount each day.

The requirement also safeguards against little things. For instance, on the first and last days of travel, it might be hard to spend $56 because a person isn’t likely to have time to eat at expensive locations.

Likewise, many hotels have complimentary breakfasts which means the Clay County official would be piling up $56 in just two meals.

And in Washington, it’s not uncommon for congressional staff to take local leaders out for lunch or dinner. In the case of the recent trip, the national Sheriff’s Association conference was going on and offered opportunities for meals for which they might not have been charged.

With what amounts to only a few dollars at stake, why worry about it? First, the public has a right to know. Second, it’s the honest thing to do. And third, and most importantly, is the appearance — the optics.

Hugh Freeze and Andy Cannizaro are two recent, local examples. While their infidelities got all the attention, what cost them their jobs was the improper expenditures or use of taxpayer dollars.

In Freeze’s case, it likely was only a small amount of money, but it still was money that wasn’t his.

On a grander scale, the Trump Administration last week called four Cabinet secretaries on the carpet for egregious abuses of taxpayer money and confidence, including exorbitant travel, lavish dinners, and things like $31,000 dining tables and chairs.

In some of the cases, it’s likely no laws were broken. But the appearances were serious affronts to John and Jane Q Public’s sensibilities.

Requiring detailed receipts likely won’t embarrass or inconvenience Clay County supervisors. In fact, some county officials already voluntarily follow that standard. And it’s better to start requiring them now when everyone is on the up and up rather than waiting until one day when a bad apple draws everyone’s ethics into question.

More than anything, the rules will help Clay County supervisors meet the basic standards of transparency and accountability their constituents expect.

Steve Rogers is the news reporter at the Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper or its staff.