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Time to think

In a weird and unexpected way, the people of Abbotsford have COVID-19 to thank for pumping the breaks on a local government many believe is headed in the wrong direction. Amid a flurry of public health concerns, the city cancelled a public hearing this past Monday that was supposed to be the first step in a plan to put up two more apartment buildings on the city’s north side.

Although this public hearing will likely be rescheduled in the not-too-distant future, the delay in the rezoning process should give council members plenty of time to hear from constituents concerned about the addition of more employee housing for Abbyland Foods.

The fact that city officials seemed like they wanted to push ahead with a public hearing during a pandemic shutdown made some suspect that they were trying to “sneak” the apartment proposal through without proper vetting by local citizens. We don’t believe city officials were actually willing to put people’s health at risk just to fast-track a construction project, and that’s why they ultimately, and rightly, decided to cancel the hearing.

However, based on Facebook chatter we read over the weekend, it’s clear that many in Abbotsford don’t trust their local government to act in the best interest of residents and taxpayers. In fact, many of the comments seemed to suggest that elected officials wouldn’t care what citizens said and would proceed with the rezoning no matter what so that Abbyland’s owner could build what would be the sixth and seventh apartment buildings for his employees.

This level of distrust is a problem that needs to be addressed. First off, city officials need to stop thinking about every development proposal strictly in terms of how much money will be added to Abbotsford’s TIF district. It’s true that tax incremental financing has done wonders for Abbotsford in terms of new roads and other public infrastructure necessary for the city to grow.

However, the downside to an ever-growing TIF district is that it deprives the city’s general fund and other taxing jurisdictions — primarily the local school district — of much-needed property tax revenue. Since all the tax dollars generated by any new buildings within a TIF district go into a special fund for even more development, that money is not available for things like additional classrooms and more police officers — both of which are needed as the city’s population continues to increase.

These are not theoretical concerns. Just recently, the chief of the Colby-Abbotsford Police Department has said he plans on asking for a ninth officer in his next budget proposal, and the superintendent of Abbotsford School District expressed concerns about not having enough classroom space for another influx of new students.

That brings us to our next point: city officials and representatives of Abbyland need to have an open and honest dialog with citizens about the impact of all the newly arrived workers. According to the manager of the Northside Apartments, the five existing buildings have 178 tenants, which by itself represents a nearly 8 percent increase in the city’s population over the 2010 census. We have no doubt that a majority of these people are hard-working individuals who are trying to make a new life for themselves after leaving the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, a couple of bad apples have threatened to spoil the whole bunch — or at least the public perception of them.

Our last piece of advice is for the city council to follow up on city administrator Dan Grady’s proposal to update the city’s 2005 comprehensive plan, which he described as “extremely outdated.” Of course, a lot of development has already happened without regular revisions to the plan, but it’s still worthwhile to reassess the city’s future plans at this crucial point in time.

These are important things for city officials to think about as we hunker down and wait for the COVID crisis to pass.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien