When Oak Bluffs voters go to the polls on Thursday, April 12, they will be asked to choose which two out of the three candidates should be elected, or re-elected, for a three-year term on the board of selectmen.
The Times presented candidates Jason Balboni, Rich Michelson, and longtime incumbent Greg Coogan with a list of questions about their take on town topics.
Michelson has lived in Oak Bluffs for 32 years. He’s a retired firefighter at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, has been an EMT for the Fire/EMS department for 16 years, and vice chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission for five years.
Balboni, MVRHS class of ’91 and owner of Balboni Appliance Service, has served on the finance and advisory committee since 2015, and been chairman since 2016. He’s served on the personnel board since 2015 and been vice chairman since 2016. He’s also on the town hall building committee, and served on the town union negotiation team in 2017.
Coogan has served on the board of selectmen for the past 15 years. He taught at the Tisbury School for over 30 years.
Cost estimates to repair East Chop Bluff are $20 million and climbing. How much of a priority should this be for the town? Should the town permanently close the road to vehicle traffic?
Balboni: The East Chop Bluff restoration project is one of many capital projects that require funding. The bluff is a scenic attraction in our town, and should be preserved. All avenues for funding this project need to be explored. The town has searched and will continue searching for federal funding for this project. The road is closed now for public safety. Alternate routes are being explored to make sure that the homeowners in the affected area have access to their homes, and emergency vehicles will be able to reach them.
Michelson: I believe that the bluffs are a very important part of the history of Oak Bluffs. That being said, I don’t believe the burden for its restoration should fall on the backs of the working class (used to be middle class) or elderly populations of the town. I believe the $21,000,000, or more, should be raised through a blend of federal, state, and private payers who can afford the task. If that can’t be accomplished in a timely manner, then let’s close the road and make East Chop Drive a walking and biking destination.
Coogan: This is a top priority for the town, since it’s one of if not the most scenic drives on the Island. Funding the repairs will take a great deal of effort because the price tag is well over anything the town can afford on its own. We hope to get significant help from the commonwealth to do the necessary repairs. Road closure is necessary at this point due to the deterioration of the bluff, but I certainly hope we can remedy that in the future.
The high school is in need of extensive renovation; a current estimate is $100 million to bring the school into the 21st century. Do you agree with the FinCom vote against contributing to a MVRHS capital stabilization fund? How would you suggest Oak Bluffs contribute to the high school upgrade?
Balboni: The town of Oak Bluffs hosts many Island services with little or no compensation for the land that they occupy or the town services that they require. I agree with the FinCom vote against contributions to regional entities that don’t have a fair funding formula. The superintendent and school members are currently working on outside funding sources to help with this massive project.
Michelson: I agree with the FinCom opinion that the high school administration and school committee need to search for outside funding. I hope they look for federal, state, and private grants.
Coogan: We would love to help the high school fund a capital stabilization fund, but we as a town have just built our own fund through hard work and very careful management of our finances. We face a significant override this year to help fund our schools, and we hope to bond repairs to our elementary school, which is now 25 years old. Facing an upgrade for the high school structure, we will need a great deal of information and transparency to examine the potential costs so we can deem the expenditures appropriate. That’s hard to do with a general fund.
The elderly population is increasing rapidly. In your view, how can the town better serve seniors now and in the future? How could the services be funded?
Balboni: There are many wonderful programs that currently exist on the Island now. Some of them are funded in the town budget, and some are funded through the town warrants. Nonprofit organizations will need to seek private funding and to pool their efforts to reduce administrative and operating costs. Fundraising will take the stress off of the taxpayers to pay for nonmandated services.
Michelson: I think our elderly population should be cherished and honored. They are our parents, grandparents, teachers, and role models. They’ve paid taxes and established legacies for us to follow. Some of the ways we can help are to make the tax exemptions higher, especially for fixed-income elders. If this needs to be done by the legislature, we need to lobby for it. Another issue I see facing our elderly and working class people is reducing ambulance bills. Our elderly people will be using ambulance services more than anyone. After the insurance companies take their money, people still receive bills that can easily be a couple of thousand dollars, and that’s just for transport on-Island, not to Boston, which can be thousands more.
Coogan: This is a very thorny issue for our town. We know we have an increasing elderly population (count me in here), but financing of this which is increasing every year does not fit in well with our current financial constraints. We have to coordinate this with all the other towns. The local Councils on Aging in each town do a great job for our seniors. We have to get together and not duplicate services. I’m trying to bring all the entities together in the future to bring some understanding of all of our issues and services.
Do you agree with the Land Bank decision at Trade Winds to erect a fence that restricts people and dogs to the outer perimeter of the property, in order to protect flora and fauna that are classified “species of concern”?
Balboni: It’s unfortunate that it has had to come to this. Many people have used this land as a dog park, but the Land Bank feels that is important to protect the flora and fauna considered species of concern. I think that we can explore other areas that could potentially be used for a dedicated dog park.
Michelson: First let me say I’m an animal lover and have a dog that I walk. The Land Bank has the authority to restrict where their property can be used. I think that the whole area is beautiful, and that sometimes we have to use what we can and be happy so that we can enjoy this area now and for the future.
Coogan: As a dog owner, I always have issues with restricting well-behaved dogs. Not everybody acts appropriately with their animals, and sometimes that creates conflict. I don’t use that particular area, but any change in people’s habits takes some getting used to. So if the fencing is appropriate and people and their dogs have enough freedom to exercise, it should work out, however we must be careful not to restrict these properties so they can’t be used for our purposes.
Do you personally support the Home Rule Petition effort to ban moped rentals in Oak Bluffs?
Balboni: I personally would like to see the end of mopeds rentals on the entire Island. Our streets are not designed to accommodate the mopeds and the large amounts of automobile traffic in the summer months. For too many years we have read the stories of fatalities from moped accidents.
Michelson: I absolutely support this petition to ban mopeds from our town. As an Oak Bluffs EMT I’ve seen the death and destruction mopeds have caused. Enough!
Is there a town department that is underperforming, in your view? What steps would you take to improve the department?
Balboni: I feel that there is always room to improve, and our town departments should always be looking to do that. Being a member of the finance committee and the personnel board, I have made suggestions to many of the departments on how to work more efficiently. If elected, I will work with the public to hear their concerns and work with the departments to solve the problems.
Michelson: Although I don’t want to use the word underperforming, I will say that I feel the Fire-EMS department needs some attention. Let me start by saying that I believe my colleagues in both the fire and EMS departments do a phenomenal job, and the town is well protected. That said, I feel that some of the same growing pains that have plagued the EMS dept continue. The biggest problem that I see is the continuing inconsistencies in the day-to-day operations. Even with some written policies, there is still a lot of confusion on what people can or are supposed to do. In my opinion the need is for an administrative EMS coordinator whose only job is to manage all aspects of the department. We have gone through at least nine paramedics for different reasons. These paramedics are probably the highest paid in the state. That alone tells me something needs to change.
We also need to resolve the contract with the IAFF union. It is the only town department which has not voted to unionize, and it is their right. So the union is here to stay. Stop wasting town money on lawyers and make working conditions black and white, instead of gray, and negotiate a contract.
Coogan: I would not single out any department in town. That is not my style. We, meaning all departments including the board of selectmen, can look to improve, and hopefully will do so. That’s our job, all of our jobs to streamline when we can and work together to help each other to better serve the townspeople. We have a great many hardworking people in town, and I salute them.
What are your strengths compared with the other two candidates?
Balboni: My experience on the finance committee and personnel board has given me a look at the inner workings of our town. I have been an active member of the American Legion in Edgartown for over 20 years, so I understand the needs of nonprofit organizations. I will bring a new voice to the board of selectmen.
Michelson: As far as my two opponents’ strengths, I know neither one of these gentlemen well enough to answer that question. As far as my strengths, I can tell you my love and commitment to the people of the town of Oak Bluffs will be with transparency, hard work, common sense, and integrity.
Coogan: Experience, patience, willingness to listen to all sides before deciding anything. I think people in town know enough about me. I think my years on the board give a perspective that is needed as we tackle today’s problem.