Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1966 No. 76 - Mar 7 1966
Attorney General John J. O'Connell


Under § 2, chapter 116, Laws of 1965, the board of county commissioners is authorized to pass an ordinance or resolution fixing the amounts to be paid county employees for reimbursement of travel expenses incurred in the performance of their officially assigned duties.  Travel expense authorization may include transportation, lodging and meals and other expenses necessarily incurred in the course of travel which are not gratuitous or purely personal in nature.

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                                                                   March 7, 1966

Honorable Sid Buckley
Prosecuting Attorney
Stevens County
Stevens County Court House
Colville, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 65-66 No. 76

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have requested the opinion of this office on three questions which we paraphrase as follows:

            1. Are field men employed in the county assessor's office entitled to mileage expenses when they use their private automobiles in the performance of their official duties?

            2. May these employees be reimbursed for noon luncheons while away from the county seat on county business?

            3. What is included within the meaning of the term "expenses" under RCW 36.17.030?

            We answer questions 1 and 3 as set forth in the analysis, question 2 in the affirmative.


            Question No. 1

            The first question asks whether field men in the county assessor's office are entitled to mileage expenses when they  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] use their private automobiles in the performance of their official duties.

            RCW 36.17.030 provides as follows:

            "All county officers shall be entitled to their necessary reasonable traveling expenses in the performance of their official duties, bills therefor to be audited by the county commissioners:  PROVIDED, That when using their own cars, they shall be allowed not to exceed ten cents per mile for each mile of necessary travel."

            To answer your question requires an analysis of the history of prior law and interpretations thereof regarding expense reimbursement for county officers and employees.

            Prior to 1965, this statute (RCW 36.17.030) appeared to be the only express provision authorizing reimbursement of travel expenses to county officials generally.  Furthermore, we understand there has always been some question as to its direct application to county employees.  This statute was originally enacted as part of § 2, chapter 168, Laws of 1919.  By its terms the statute referred, as it does now, only to "county officers," and in the same section the county officers were specifically enumerated.  See, also, § 6, chapter 148, Laws of 1925, Ex. Sess.; § 6, chapter 136, Laws of 1933; § 3, chapter 197, Laws of 1937; § 1, chapter 87, Laws of 1945; § 1, chapter 200, Laws of 1949; all of which contained essentially the same statutory language.

            The original section was subsequently divided by the code reviser, with the result that the provision enumerating county officers was codified as RCW 36.17.020 and the expense reimbursement provision became RCW 36.17.030.  This division and codification was later adopted by the legislature in amending RCW 36.17.030 on a point not material to this discussion.  See, chapter 35, Laws of 1961; also, chapter 79, Laws of 1961.

            By its terms the statute expressly allows reimbursement to "county officers," including the county assessor.  No deputies or employees are expressly mentioned in this or any similar statutory authorization prior to 1965.

            RCW 36.16.070 provides that the board of county commissioners shall fix thecompensation of deputies and employees.  However, as stated by our court in State ex rel. Jaspers v. West,  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] 13 Wn.2d 514, 519, 125 P.2d 694 (1942), "The terms salary and compensation import the idea of compensation for personal services and not the repayment of money necessarily expended in the discharge of the duties of the office."

            With no provision specifically for reimbursement of travel expenses incurred by deputies or employees, we have tacitly assumed in several opinions, including AGO 53-55 No. 281 [[to Prosecuting Attorney, Klickitat County on July 7, 1954]], that the legislature must have intended RCW 36.17.030 to apply by implication to deputies and employees of county officers.  Moreover, this interpretation has been uniformly followed by county officials, with the approval of the state auditor's office for many years.

            The position we have taken in the past is sound, for even in the absence of RCW 36.17.030, as we concluded in AGO 53-55-111 [[to Cliff Yelle, State Auditor on August 8, 1953]]when a statute expressly or by implication authorizes a municipal officer [or employee] to travel, within or without a state, that party may be reimbursed for strictly necessary expenses incurred in such travel.  See, also,Marin County v. Messner, 44 Cal.App. 2d 577, 112 P.2d 731 (1941).  In other words, if the employee is authorized to travel, as a necessary implication, the reimbursement of his necessary travel expenses is authorized, since it could not be presumed that the legislature intended county employees to travel on official business at their own expense.

            It was against this background that § 2, chapter 116, Laws of 1965, was enacted.

            "No claim for reimbursement of any expenditures by officers or employees of any municipal corporation or political subdivision of the state fortransportation, lodging,meals or any other purpose shall be allowed by any officer, employee or board charged with auditing accounts unless the same shall be presented in a detailed account:  PROVIDED, That, unless otherwise authorized by law, the legislative body of any municipal corporation or political subdivision of the state may prescribe by ordinance or resolution the amounts to be paid officers or employees thereof as reimbursement for the use of their personal automobiles or other transportation equipment in connection with officially  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] assigned duties and other travel for approved public purposes, or as reimbursement to such officers or employees in lieu of actual expenses incurred for lodging, meals or other purposes.  The rates for such reimbursements may be computed on a mileage, hourly, per diem or other basis as the respective legislative bodies shall determine to be proper in each instance.

            "All claims for reimbursement authorized under this section shall be duly certified by the officer or employee submitting such claims on forms and in the manner prescribed by the division of municipal corporations in the office of the state auditor."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            It will be noted that this statute authorizes the legislative body of any municipal corporation or political subdivision of the state to fix the rate of reimbursement to officers and employees for use of their personal automobiles in connection with their officially assigned duties, unless otherwise authorized by law.  While reimbursement of the necessary mileage expenses of county officers is expressly governed by RCW 36.17.030, there has been in the past no such express authority governing similar expenses of deputies and employees.  As to them, the new statute (§ 2, chapter 116, Laws of 1965, supra) would be applicable.

            Under this statute, as in the past, reimbursement is legally authorized whenever an expense is appropriately incurred in connection with an employee's officially assigned duties.  Therefore, in our opinion, the field men in the county assessor's office may be legally reimbursed for their necessary travel and subsistence expenses incurred in the discharge of their officially assigned duties.1/

             [[Orig. Op. Page 5]]

            Question No. 2

            Your second question is whether county employees may be reimbursed for noon luncheons while away from the county seat on county business.  In AGO 53-55 No. 281,supra, written to the state auditor July 7, 1954, this office concluded that a deputy sheriff was not entitled to reimbursement for this expense, while on regular patrol in the county.  The conclusion which we reached in the 1954 opinion related to a special fact situation, and was based upon a restrictive interpretation of the words "travel" and "traveling" as they were used in RCW 36.17.030,supra.  However, the provisions of § 2, chapter 116, Laws of 1965, supra, are broader than the language of 36.17.030, in that respect, and clearly authorize the governing body of a county to provide reimbursement for the necessary expenses incurred by employees in the fact situation described in your letter.  Therefore, to the extent that AGO 53-55 No. 281, supra, would forbid reimbursement to deputies and employees under those facts, it is hereby superseded.  We call your attention, however, to the permissive nature of the statute authorizing the enactment of appropriate local legislation to achieve the result contemplated in the statute.  Any right of the employee to receive such reimbursement will necessarily depend upon the terms of such local law.

            Question No. 3

            The third question asks what is included within the term "expenses" as used in RCW 36.17.030,supra, and chapter 116, Laws of 1965, supra, for which reimbursement may be made.

            It is generally conceded that this phrase includes transportation, lodging and meals.  See,Collins v. Riley, 24 Cal.2d 912, 152 P.2d 169 (1944).  Section 2, chapter 116, Laws of 1965, supra, expressly mentions those items.  Therefore, at the minimum, these particular costs would be regarded as reimbursable expenses.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 6]]

            While we would not presume to list all the expenditures that would or would not be regarded as reimbursable, a few additional illustrations might prove helpful.  Necessary automobile parking expenses, for example, are generally recognized as reimbursable.  On the other hand, tips to porters and waitresses have been held to be personal expenses and are not reimbursable, to the extent that they are gratuitous in nature.  See our previous opinion to the state auditor dated May 22, 1935; also an opinion by the attorney general of New York, dated June 15, 1931, to the state comptroller; copies are attached.  It should be apparent that expenditures for items of purely personal entertainment or luxury or other purely personal expenses are not reimbursable.

            Under these general guidelines there is usually no difficulty in determining whether a particular expenditure is or is not reimbursable as a "necessary and reasonable traveling expense."  However, no single rule or set of rules can be determinative of all cases in the future, and doubtful situations will require analysis in the light of their own facts and the sound discretion of the governing body.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/We interpret the phrase "unless authorized by law" as a legislative recognition and affirmation of the rule that special statutes take precedence over general statutes or, in other words, that a special statute expressly controlling expense reimbursement for a particular officer or employee or class of officers or employees will take precedence over the provisions of the new law, which is general in its application.  This statement of the rule is in accord with the cases generally.  See,State v. Becker, 39 Wn.2d 94, 234 P.2d 897 (1951);City of Airway Heights v. Schroeder, 53 Wn.2d 625, 335 P.2d 578 (1959).