Within a few days, the government will publish its 2006 per diem rates for federal travelers. The new rate schedule, if history is a guide, will likely elicit sighs in some parts of the country and smiles in others.
Prince William County, in particular, will be taking a hard look at the new per diems -- the maximum daily reimbursement that federal employees can claim for their official travel.
Prince William, by any common-sense definition, is part of Northern Virginia. Federal employees who work there have been deemed part of the Washington-Baltimore salary zone. The FBI plans to put more than 300 employees in a Northern Virginia Resident Agency planned for Prince William, and the military's base realignment process is expected to transfer about 3,000 workers to Quantico Marine Corps Base. Overall, the county is one of the fastest-growing areas near the nation's capital.
But the county is not part of Northern Virginia on the per diem rate tables at the General Services Administration, the government's landlord.
Federal travelers reporting for temporary assignments in Prince William can claim up to $70 in daily lodging reimbursements. But an employee assigned to duty across the border in Fairfax County qualifies for a $153 per diem.
The $153 room rate also is good for the District and other nearby jurisdictions, including Loudoun and Prince George's counties.
"Something is not right here," said Laurie C. Wieder, president of the Prince William Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Our economy is growing; prices are going up."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and a member sensitive to federal employee concerns, knows about Prince William's per diem plight, an aide said. Davis "has asked GSA for more detailed information on the justification for not including the county in the portion of Northern Virginia that's part of the enhanced rate regions," David Marin said.
At GSA, spokeswoman Viki Reath said the government relies on an expert used by the hotel industry to figure out reimbursement allowances for federal travelers. GSA sets rates for lodging, meal and incidental expenses in the continental United States and reviews the rates annually.
This year, the standard per diem lodging rate is $60, and it applies to nearly 8,000 locations across the country, Reath said.
In fewer than 400 areas, GSA establishes so-called nonstandard rates, based on feedback from federal agencies regarding the adequacy of the per diems.
Prince William received the standard, nationwide per diem until 1999, when GSA set the rate at $67 for Woodbridge and at $62 for Manassas. By 2002, the two communities were given a per diem of $84. Then, this year, the rate dropped to $70.
In a letter to Davis, Wieder and Ken Solem, board chairman for the Prince William chamber, said hotels in the county are limiting the number of rooms available to government employees or turning them away because the per diem does not cover their costs.
Many federal employees and federal contractors are headed to Quantico and the FBI Academy, and Prince William hotels are concerned that the per diem issue is going to weaken their business relationships with the military and the FBI, the letter said.
Hotel rates, of course, vary by season and demand. A telephone survey of hotels in eastern Prince William this spring turned up rates that ranged from $64.99 to $129.99 a night, the chamber said.
Jill Dervish, sales director for the Courtyard by Marriott and the Residence Inn at Potomac Mills in Woodbridge, said hotels do not want to alienate government customers but find it increasingly difficult to offer rooms at the government rate. "People are upset in most cases that they can't get it anymore," Dervish said.
GSA's Reath said any change to the per diem rates, other than from the annual review, would be based on a review requested by a federal agency.
"To date, no federal agency has told GSA that the established per diem lodging rate for Prince William County is inadequate," she said.
Wieder said she hopes to meet with federal agency officials and win support for a per diem challenge, especially "if the rate comes out low again for 2006."