By Sam Prickett
Despite some concerns of excessive spending, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to send up to 297 neighborhood representatives — up to three from each of the city’s 99 neighborhoods — to this May’s Neighborhoods USA Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The annual NUSA conference provides “an opportunity for people from all locations, sectors, and levels of society to discuss the pressing issues of the times, share experiences and offer assistance, motivation and encouragement.” The conferences focus on successful neighborhood practices. In addition to tours of neighborhoods, they usually include workshops and presentations by experts.
The money, which would come from neighborhood associations’ individual funds, did not place caps on how much those neighborhood representatives could spend, leading some councilors to express concern.
“I would like to know how much it’s going to cost per person before we vote instead of waiting until afterwards,” said District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott.
“This type of expenditure of taxpayer dollars, where people can spend unlimited amounts of money per neighborhood … . I don’t know if our citizens are going to remember the three people from their neighborhood association going to Arkansas, or if they’re going to remember having a sidewalk on their street,” added District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin — who emphasized that the resolution had come from the council’s office, not his — estimated that the minimum per-person cost for the trip could range between $350 to $600. Last year, the trips were estimated to cost $1,600 per person — though councilors suggested that number was higher than average, since last year’s conference was held in Palm Springs, California.
Abbott said she’d be more comfortable voting for the measure if each neighborhood was limited to two representatives, noting that Birmingham is often overrepresented at NUSA Conferences.
“In some years, we’ve had more than half of the delegates to show up to those conferences, and there is a level of resentment of Birmingham because we do send so many people,” she said. “I don’t want people to look at Birmingham with negative thoughts.”
But other councilors downplayed these concerns; District 9 Councilor John Hilliard even framed it as a reward for neighborhood officers. “I guess I would be debating something like this if I didn’t realize that our neighborhood officers don’t get paid and they work countless hours,” he said.
The resolution also included the language that representatives “shall be free to attend this year’s scheduled conference … without obligation of journaling, recording, and/or submitting their learning experiences.” That had been a sticking point when NUSA travel funding was approved last year; this year, it went unmentioned.
Funding for the NUSA trip passed, with Abbott and Williams as the only dissenting votes. Councilors William Parker and Steven Hoyt were absent from the vote.
The council also quietly voted to approve a Bold funding agreement giving $26,500 to the Five Points West/Crossplex Business Alliance to provide a variety of business training and recruitment services to the Five Points West area — along with five new murals in the area.
That proposal had received significant opposition from Hoyt earlier this month, leading to its delay. It passed without discussion Tuesday; Hoyt abstained from voting.