The COVID-19 pandemic dominated discussion at the annual Falmouth League of Women Voters candidates night on Wednesday, May 6.
The debate, usually held at the Falmouth Public Library, was instead conducted via Zoom and streamed on Falmouth Community Television. Incumbent Selectman Samuel H. Patterson and challengers Michael G. Heylin and Nancy R. Taylor participated in the debate. All three identified the coronavirus as the biggest issue Falmouth faces this year.
“It is affecting so many people in town who are without work,” Mr. Patterson said. “It is affecting the health of people, it is affecting our healthcare providers, it is endangering many family members in the case a person does get infected. That is going to be the ongoing challenge, I believe. We’re faced with trying to minimize infection spreading, but I think we also have to prepare for large-scale vaccination of our 32,000 residents here in Falmouth.”
Mr. Heylin said while the pandemic is the biggest issue facing the town, a vaccination is months away.
“Currently, there is no vaccine for this COVID-19,” he said. “For the select board to plan a vaccination process without a vaccine seems very premature. We don’t know if that is going to be happening in the next couple months or the next year. Right now, we have to focus on the safety of all of our residents, and not just the physical safety, but the emotional and mental safety and safety of our businesses.”
Ms. Taylor said the town will be managing the COVID-19 pandemic for the next couple of years.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have other issues, like the opioid epidemic and the substance use this town has been grappling with, affordable housing, making sure seniors have housing that they can afford and that our young people who grew up here can really come and work, and afford to come home,” she said.
Citing her experience as the former superintendent of Falmouth Public Schools, she said she saw the impact of a lack of affordable housing in town firsthand.
“One of the challenges of being a superintendent and hiring new, young teachers was the fact that they could not afford to live here,” Ms. Taylor said. “At a base salary as a brand-new teacher, they did not meet the requirements for housing in Falmouth. I’m very much in support of Falmouth, the board of selectmen and the town, continuing to support affordable housing in town.”
Mr. Patterson said affordable housing will have a positive economic impact in town.
“It is important to our whole economic vitality,” he said. “Employers need to have employees, and employees should be able to live in the towns where they work. It really bothers me to see the traffic backed up at the hospital light, all the way up Palmer Avenue to the lane drop on 28, of people who have to literally live in Wareham or South Plymouth in order to be able to work in Falmouth.”
He said the town should explore using municipal bonds to put additional money into the Falmouth Affordable Housing Fund, meaning more subsidies could be provided to developers for the creation of additional affordable housing.
Mr. Heylin said Falmouth needs to change its approach to affordable housing.
“I’m more concerned with the types of affordable housing being put up,” he said. “Single units, studio apartments, those kind of things, those aren’t attracting families to our town. A family with two kids, three kids, they can’t fit in a studio apartment. Workforce housing is fine, but do we want apartment complexes full of just workforce, or do we want to make Falmouth a great community with families and kids and the elderly all living together and enjoying our Main Street and our beaches?”
Town Budget Discussed
The candidates also discussed the town’s budget, acknowledging how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the town’s coffers. Noting a conversation with Director of Finance Jennifer Mullen, Ms. Taylor said the town is in a good position for Fiscal Year 2021, which starts on July 1.
“My concern would be moving forward to and planning the budget for 2022,” she said. “Thinking about what resources and how you would work with money and get the resources to fund Falmouth is something I would look into very carefully in planning the 2022 budget.”
Mr. Patterson said the creation of new revenues will be a challenge for Falmouth for the next few years.
“The critical thing that we’re going to be doing, as far as the budget is concerned, is basically taking a look at what the essentials are that we want to continue to fund and what we probably should have to cut back on so it balances the budget,” he said. “That is going to be a real challenge.”
Mr. Heylin said the state is looking at a 10 percent decrease in state funding across the board. While the town cannot control changes to state aid, it can take steps to help local small businesses.
“One of my ideas, actually it was not my idea, it was approached to me by someone else, was to close down Main Street and create outdoor restaurant and shopping availability, so people could come in and utilize our local businesses and utilize our local stores and restaurants, but do so in a safe way,” he said. “We want to be safe, but we also want to be sure those small businesses, who give so much to our community, can get something back as well, because they’re struggling too.”
All three candidates talked about steps that can be taken to support those struggling small businesses. Mr. Heylin said the $2 million Falmouth recovery loan fund proposed by the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation is a good first step, but won’t offset the amount of money lost by local businesses this summer.
“Walmart is packed full of people, but when you go down Main Street, the local boutiques and hardware stores, no one is in there, because Walmart is essential but they’re not. But to me, the Main Street small businesses are essential to our town,” he said. “They are the heart and soul of our community, and they do so much for us. We need to do more for them through this pandemic.”
Mr. Patterson said the town has some legal questions to answer regarding the Falmouth recovery loan fund, as it involves loaning public funding to private businesses for private purposes.
“We need to find some way to provide loans to the small businesses so they can support their employees to some extent or pay the rent so they can stay in businesses, because this is not a short-term thing,” Mr. Patterson said. “We’re going to be in involved in this for an extended period of time, and I tell you, I lay awake at night worrying about how people are going to survive through this.”
Ms. Taylor said there is no simple solution to the pandemic and all the problems it causes.
“There is not going to be a magic bullet, either from the state or the federal government, and when I looked at the EDIC loan program and read a little bit about that, I thought on the surface it looked really good and it looked helpful,” she said. “Certainly, no one is questioning the need of our small businesses here in town, but I think the select board and both the town manager and town counsel did the prudent thing by saying we need to look at this more, there needs to be more research on this.”
She said the idea of closing Main Street and allowing stores to conduct their businesses in a safe, socially distant fashion is a good idea, but a plan needs to be in place for that to happen.
Climate Change Discussed
Candidates also talked about the impacts of climate change.
“This is a huge problem,” Ms. Taylor said. “It is international, but what we need to think about is the impact in Falmouth. I think about questions like will we always have Menauhant Beach or Surf Drive Beach? Certainly, these are challenges to address, and I think it is important to remember we have our coastal resiliency committee that continues to look at this issue and make recommendations. We consult with the very best experts, and we have the best experts in our scientific community in Woods Hole to reach out to and consult with.”
Mr. Heylin said one step the town should consider to reduce erosion is the installation of breakwaters.
“In some communities, they are actually using these breakwaters as tourist attractions,” he said. “Not this year, as well all know, but in the future, you create a breakwater, it becomes a breakwater boardwalk, and people can walk out there and go fishing, and it helps with the erosion of public beaches.”
Mr. Patterson said the town will need to consider a strategic retreat in some areas due to the changing climate and sea level rise, and an evaluation is needed.
“I think we are going to have to be extremely careful about adapting and, of course, getting people to retreat from the coast in some places,” he said, noting the town can use either breakwaters or jetties to strategically protect some of its coastal infrastructure.
All three candidates highlighted steps Falmouth has taken to become a greener community. Mr. Patterson noted these efforts are ongoing, describing the increasing ocean temperature as a warning siren.
“Being a green community means we are taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “I’m very much in favor of that, not for my sake, as I probably won’t be around long enough to suffer the worst consequences, but children will be around, and grandchildren, and future generations, and I think we have a responsibility to make sure the environment we pass along to them is one that allows them to survive.”
Ms. Taylor said Falmouth has taken some good steps, including the solar array project at the landfill and the plastic bag ban voted by Town Meeting.
“I would support making further changes to lower our carbon emissions,” she said.
Mr. Heylin said the town should consider additional solar arrays, describing them as a “win-win.”
“If we have a piece of land that we can put solar arrays, it’s helping us move toward the green and is also bringing in some revenue to the town, which in the next couple of years is much needed,” he said.
Change In Size Of Board
The candidates also answered a question about changing the size of the board of selectmen from five to seven members, with representatives from specific districts in town. Mr. Patterson is against the change, noting precinct representation can be seen at Falmouth Town Meeting.
“I think the select board should be representing all of the citizens in Falmouth, and should be non-geographically oriented,” Mr. Patterson said. “That is the way I look at it, in terms of my responsibility. I don’t see myself as representing Woods Hole or West Falmouth or North Falmouth or East Falmouth or Hatchville. I see myself as really representing all of the citizens, and I think that is an important attitude that the select board should have. If we were to divide up our loyalties to different areas of town, it would be counterproductive to the deliberations that we have.”
Mr. Heylin noted that with nine districts in town, having a seven-member board of selectmen would not ensure representation from all areas of town. He acknowledged that citizens from some areas of town don’t feel represented as well as they could be.
“It is one thing I hope to bring to the select board,” he said. “I live in West Falmouth, I grew up near the Heights, born and raised Falmouth High School, and if someone from Teaticket, Woods Hole, East Falmouth, anyone calls me, I’m responding to their phone call and representing them. It is not where I live, but I know some people do feel that way.”
Ms. Taylor said she had not considered or thought about the matter.
“I need to know a little bit more about how that would equally represent and would be curious to know why people think we need to increase the number of people on the select board,” she said. “I don’t know that I would support or not support. I’m not sure I have enough information.”
The discussion ended with closing statements from the three candidates. Mr. Patterson noted his experience, which includes 16 years on the school committee and six years as a selectman.
“I do want to emphasize our budget challenges are going to be horrendous and will require a lot of work,” he said. “Addressing those challenges requires teamwork, coordination and problem solving, and I offer my knowledge, organizational management and 22 years as a town leader to all of you to continue to serve you on the select board.”
Ms. Taylor noted her 25 years of experience in the Falmouth Public Schools, retiring as the district’s superintendent. Noting challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, affordable housing and maintaining quality schools, she said she wants to be part of the solution.
“I would like to be part of the town’s planning to grapple with and solve these issues,” she said. “I believe we need town leaders who continue to work as a cohesive board and carefully and thoughtfully guide our town through this pandemic and all of the other issues that are in front of us right now.”
Mr. Heylin said his goal is to help, and he will listen to community members who need assistance.
“As a select board member, and I’ve said this before and will say it again, I listen to everyone in town,” he said. “You come, you ask me a question, you have something you want to happen, I will listen, I will talk to you. Whether I agree with you or I don’t agree with you, I will listen and help you as much as I can.”
The three candidates are running for two seats on the Falmouth Board of Selectmen. The selectmen race is the only contested race on the ballot for the Tuesday, May 19, town election.
Statements from candidates in uncontested races, including those running for the planning board, school committee, library board of trustees and housing authority, aired after the selectmen debated.
The Falmouth League of Women Voters candidates night will be rebroadcast on FCTV channel 13 Friday, May 8, at 2:30 and 10:30 PM; Saturday, May 9, at 10:30 AM; and Sunday, May 10, at 5 PM.