Last month, we reported on a fracas regarding Mayor Jones’ attendance at the Missouri Brownfields Conference. We recently viewed the mayor’s expense report for the conference, and found an additional issue. According to her expense report, Jones requested, and was reimbursed for, one full day and two partial days of meals.
She elected to use the per diem rate, where you are provided a standard amount for each day. Under IRS rules, those who elect the per diem rate are not required to provide receipts. In fact, people often take the per diem, spend less, keep the difference, and are perfectly complying with IRS rules.
But when claiming an expense as a city official, you should have actually incurred an expense. Per diem rates don’t exist to allow city officials to make a few extra bucks at public expense, they are a means of simplifying tax compliance. This is relevant here not only because the mayor didn’t provide receipts indicating that she purchased meals, but in fact, the conference provided food, as part of the conference, on the day she attended. Are you entitled to claim per diem when your food was being provided for you?
The mayor’s claim may comply with the tax code, but it’s not right. You shouldn’t claim per diem for a day on which your meals were provided. And frankly, the city should require that officials provide documentation that they actually incurred expenses. Even if we allow the per diem, it ought not be used as a means of getting a few extra bucks beyond your mayoral salary. We aren’t talking about a lot of money, but we should expect better from our city officials.
Interestingly, Mayor Jones took a different approach when she attended the annual conference of the Missouri Municipal Leage in February. The city paid for the conference, and also for her hotel room. Appropriately, Jones did not claim the per diem for this trip. But the conference adjourned at 9:30 on February 16. Jefferson City is a two hour drive from Ferguson, which would put her home in time for lunch. But Mayor Jones stopped for a mid-afternoon lunch at Red Lobster in St. Peters, charging the city $23 for the expense. Again, not illegal, but it says something about the mayor’s attitude toward the public purse.