General Municipal Law5 authorizes local governments and school districts to pay for the actual and necessary expenses of travel, meals, lodging, registration fees and tuition fees incurred by officers and employees while attending conferences. A “conference” is defined as a convention, conference, or school conducted for the betterment of any local government or school district. A conference also includes any convention or conference of firefighters or officers, if believed to be of benefit to any local government or school district. The governing board must, by resolution, give prior authorization for conference travel or delegate its power to authorize such travel to an executive officer or an administrative board.
As a general rule, in order for conference expenses to be considered "actual and necessary," an expenditure must have been made, been incurred of necessity and the amount of the expense must be no greater than reasonably necessary. The law6 also provides that conference travel must be for official business and must be made utilizing a cost-effective and reasonable method of travel. Accordingly, accommodations should be selected utilizing the most cost-effective and reasonable options available. Spending lavishly on deluxe hotels, extravagant meals and expensive transportation methods are not expenses that are necessary and therefore not an appropriate use of public funds. Each local government and school district should provide guidance in its travel policy and procedures regarding reasonable dollar limits for actual and necessary conference expenses.
Extension of Conference Travel for Personal Reasons
You may allow your employees to extend travel for personal reasons beyond the time needed to attend conferences, subject to the employee charging the personal time to leave credits, as appropriate. Personal travel expenses, however, must be paid by the traveler and not with the local government or school district’s money. Your travel and conference policy should clearly state that personal travel expenses (incurred before, during or after official travel status) should not be billed to the local government or school district, nor claimed for reimbursement by the traveler. Only actual and necessary travel expenses properly incurred while attending the conference may be billed or claimed for reimbursement.
Conference Expenses of Non-Employees
It is acceptable for your travel policy to allow employees to bring their spouses or other non-employees while traveling for conference purposes. Any transportation, lodging or other expenses for spouses or other non-employees must be paid by the traveling employee or the extra traveler. If the room rate is higher than it would have been if the employee was traveling alone (i.e., upgrading from a $128 single-occupancy room rate to a $168 double-occupancy room rate), the employee may only be reimbursed for the single rate amount. Local government or school district credit cards should not be used to pay for expenses incurred for non-employee travelers. Likewise, any increase in room rates due to an extra traveler should not be charged to a government or school district credit card.
Cash Advances for Conferences
If your local government or school district does not utilize credit cards for travel and conference expenses, your governing board may authorize, by resolution, a cash advance in anticipation of conference travel.7 If a cash advance is approved by the governing board, the amount disbursed cannot exceed the amount authorized by the board. Original receipts should be obtained for all expenses paid from the cash advance. Upon return, the traveler should promptly account for all expenses paid from the cash advance and determine whether a surplus or deficiency exists. If a surplus is not returned when the employee’s voucher is submitted, the unreturned surplus must be deducted from the employee’s salary or other money owed to the employee. If the cash advance was insufficient to cover the travel expenses incurred by the traveler, the local government or school district should reimburse the excess expenses after audit of the claim. The treasurer or other appropriate official should monitor the status of all cash advances and ensure that travelers promptly account for their advances.