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Guidelines for reimbursing elected officials' expenses

South Carolina state law (Section 5-7-170) is very clear about how mayors and council- members should be compensated for expenses. Reimbursement is limited to ""actual expenses incurred in the performance of their official duties within the limitations prescribed by ordinance."

Municipal elected officials may receive payment for only those expenses that are able to be documented at the time of payment. State law does not authorize a fixed-amount expense allowance to cover future unknown expenses. In numerous opinions, the state attorney general has concluded that paying expense allowances or a daily allowance, called per diem, would likely be found by a court to be in violation of state law.

An official can receive a travel advance to cover anticipated expenses. However, the official must provide documentation, such as receipts, of actual incurred expenses. The official must reimburse any overpayment to the municipality in a timely manner.

The municipality should reimburse only expenses for the elected official, not spouse or guest expenses. In 1985, the state Supreme Court concluded that expenses incurred by a spouse or guest accompanying a municipal councilmember while on business were not an "actual expense incurred in the performance of their official duties" and did not meet the public purpose test.

Council's rules of procedure should spell out the method for requesting and approving reimbursement of actual expenses incurred in the performance of official duties. The rules of procedure should also require reimbursement requests be accompanied by a signed voucher certifying that the expenses were incurred in the performance of official duties and be accompanied by receipts for the expenses. 

When developing rules of procedure, council can define which type of expenses are eligible for reimbursement and put in place a cap on amounts to be reimbursed. 

If the elected official has a municipal credit card, he can use the card only for actual expenses incurred in the performance of his official duties. Council should adopt a clear policy on appropriate credit card use and implement a system to carefully monitor usage and require proper documentation of the purpose for the expense to ensure policy compliance.