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Red Lobster bill prompts Crow Wing County to look at employee meal reimbursement rates

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A $75.19 bill to feed two people at a Red Lobster led to broader discussion of how much Crow Wing County employees should be reimbursed for meals.

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Commissioner Paul Koering cited the Red Lobster bill along with other travel expenses at the Tuesday board meeting.

The board provides a reimbursement of $12 for breakfast, $18 for lunch and $36 for dinner. Day trips where the employee may be in St. Cloud or the Twin Cities for training allow meal reimbursements along with conferences. The bills are monitored through the auditor/treasurer’s office with receipts documented and department heads sign off on expenditures. When it was suggested a small group could look take an in-depth look to find out the facts in this particular case, Koering said he didn’t think the county needed to study it or conduct a review in order to change the meal rates and lower the reimbursement. Koering also said he was troubled by the policy language stating meal reimbursement are “generally” not allowed, saying the exact allowances should be spelled out. Commissioner Paul Thiede said the word generally was put in because there are exceptions to every rule.

“I’m sure delighted somebody else is going to get the new micromanager title because I’m sick of carrying it,” Thiede said.

“No you are not,” Board Chairwoman Rachel Reabe Nystrom responded.

Thiede said it’s an important policy question and while it amounts to peanuts in the county’s $72 million budget, “peanuts add up to a heavy load.”

Nystrom suggested a committee of two commissioners to review what the county has and bring recommendations back to the county board.

“No,” Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said, suggesting a referral to the budget committee. “I don’t think we need another committee.”

During the discussion, Thiede said the county monitors are doing a good job and in some instances there may be a charge but the county employee pays the county back. The county auditor-treasurer’s office keeps close tabs on the parameters for meals and hotels, Nystrom said.

Thiede and Franzen were against a previous revision increasing the reimbursement rates. Koering said it may seem nitpicky but when you add up the expenditures it’s thousands of dollars and that multiplies quickly.

When Koering suggested setting a new reimbursement amount, Thiede said coming back to the board with justification may make it less reactionary than responding to one bill. Treasurer-Auditor Laureen Borden said while there is the Red Lobster example there are many examples of smaller amounts from fast food restaurants. While the issue was set aside during the bulk of the meeting, Koering brought it up again later. He suggested changing the reimbursement rates to $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch and $20 for dinner.

Commissioner Doug Houge asked how Koering arrived at those numbers, noting the county looked at averages when it set the policy last year, looking at prices to eat out in the Twin Cities where people are traveling to meetings. Borden said the reimbursement amounts are not out of line for prices there or at area resorts. The reimbursement rates were set looking at federal rates and prices in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Employees are reimbursed for a lunch during a longer day trip.

In terms of meals, conferences often have luncheon speakers. Part of the meeting is to network with others during meals, Nystrom said, particularly noting the commissioners attending the Association of Minnesota Counties annual meeting where the dinner is more than $20. To tell other commissioners she’d be back after dining at Chipotle would be a little odd, Nystrom said. She added such networking won’t be possible if people are leaving to look for a cheaper meal away somewhere else. Nystrom said the conference setting seems different than just driving to a restaurant when traveling.

Koering said he came up with his numbers as a fair price. When he sees constituents in St. Mathias and tells them a dinner reimbursement is $36 that is totally unacceptable, Koering said. If the individual needs to pay more, Koering said that’s fine but the taxpayer should pay no more than $20.

Franzen questioned why people were reimbursed for a meal in Little Falls when they were a half hour from home.

“To me it doesn’t make sense for some of these things and who is monitoring this,” Franzen said. “It’s weeding out the ones that don’t actually qualify.”

Nystrom agreed guidelines would be helpful.

Thiede seconded Koering’s motion to allow discussion he said and then withdrew the second once the board talked about it. Franzen then seconded Koering’s motion to lower the reimbursement rates.

The board defeated the motion with Houge, Thiede and Nystrom opposed. Thiede said there were good points raised but he wasn’t sure they could look at all the facts at Tuesday’s session. The issue is expected back before the board after some research.

“As long as I’m here on the board, I’m trying to do what I think is my job,” Koering said. “My job is to be a custodian of the taxpayer dollars. I’m not trying to do this to be mean. If you know me I’m not a mean person at all.”

Koering asked the board how he can explain the reimbursement rates to constituents. “There is no explanation,” he said.

Borden will research the matter and bring it to the personnel committee Monday.

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
(218) 855-5852
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