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Abby looks to ramp up building inspections

Recent discussions about the lack of housing in Abbotsford have touched on an unpleasant reality — a number of local families are living in ramshackle buildings that are most likely unfit for human habitation.

At a planning commission meeting on June 9, city officials confronted the question of what to do about properties that are unsafe and need to be considered for condemnation.

Commissioners decided to recommend forming a task force of sorts, made up of the mayor, city administrator, DPW, council president and a member of the police department to identify problem properties and arrange for inspections.

Patrick Leichtnam, the school resource officer with the Colby-Abbotsford Police Department, participated in last week’s conversation after drawing attention to the housing issue at a public hearing last month regarding the construction of two new apartment buildings for employees of Abbyland Foods.

Leichtnam said he’s encountered several dwellings with substandard living conditions while checking on students during the COVID-19 school shutdown.

City administrator Dan Grady showed members of the commission pictures of some of the worst rental properties in the city, including one where he said the owner will not allow the tenants to turn on the water because he’s afraid of getting stuck with any unpaid bills.

“Is that even legal?” Leichtnam wondered.

“I don’t think it’s legal, no,” Grady said.

City officials also mentioned a house with holes in the foundation and missing floorboards covered up by carpet.

Ald. Mason Rachu, chairman of the planning commission, said the city needs to start taking action against dwellings that are clearly unsafe.

“I think we need to put some of these landlords on notice, that these things are not just going to be looked past anymore,” he said.

Grady said city officials need a way to quickly address problem properties without getting bogged down in a lengthy procedural process. “We really need permission to go call the building inspector and not have to go through the formal process of going through the council and everything,” he said.

Rachu agreed, saying he doesn’t want city officials to have to wait until the next available council meeting before they contact a building inspector.

Mayor Voss said she has reported unsafe properties to the police chief before, but she wasn’t sure how the enforcement process works. Officer Leichtnam said the police can’t do it alone, since they are not qualified to assess whether a building is up to code.

“We need a building inspector who will work with the city and the police together,” he said. “They will also work with the county and social services because there are different codes there that need enforcing as well.”

Bob Christensen is currently the city’s building inspector of record, but he’s not always available to do on-site inspections right away, so Grady said he’s spoken to Wausau’s mayor about hiring one of that city’s inspectors if needed.

Grady said if the city decides to have a residential building inspector check on these properties, a police officer would be there as an escort and as a witness.

“It protects everybody to have a police officer there,” he said.

After doing an inspection, Grady said the inspector would come to the city council with a recommendation for either ordering the building to be fixed or issuing a raze order to have it torn down.

Officer Leichtnam said a licensed inspector can also write citations under the city’s ordinances or ask the police to write those tickets. Grady said the city could initially be responsible for the cost of inspections and demolition, but those would eventually be recouped by placing them on the property owner’s tax bill.

The commission’s proposal for future building inspections will be voted on by the council tonight (June 17).