By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
CUMBERLAND — Mayor Jeffrey J. Mutter did not have an opponent in his bid for re-election on Nov. 3, but he received plenty of voter support even as the only candidate for mayor on the ballot.
As Mutter heads into his second term with the COVID-19 pandemic still overwhelming the country, he will probably need that support for the decisions that may yet be ahead on the town’s budget and finances.
Mutter claimed 15,428 votes in the election against the 556 that were cast for write-ins, and he voiced appreciation this week for the backing, sending him into his second term in office as mayor and extending his 24 years of town service that has included prior roles with the school committee and town council.
“You are always honored to receive that endorsement from the people,” Mutter said of the number of votes that were cast in his favor even without a formal challenger on ballot.
Mutter pointed to his re-election as a directive to stay the course he set when he was first elected mayor two years ago when he defeated former Mayor William Murray in a primary contest and carried that victory into another unchallenged general election.
“I am going to continue what I have been doing, and do the best I can to live up to that choice that they made,” Mutter said of his re-election by town voters.
The mayor’s success in the election, however, will be tempered by the challenges the town is facing under the unresolved fiscal uncertainties of the pandemic.
Mutter explained that Cumberland, like the rest of the state’s municipalities, still doesn’t know where the state is heading on completing its own spending plan under the pandemic or how any changes in state funding will be passed along to the local communities.
“I would say the implications of the virus, that and the uncertainty of the budget and the impact on the community, whether it be the business community or otherwise,” Mutter said while describing the pandemic’s effects as the biggest challenge he will be taking on in weeks and months ahead.
“So I’m not looking too far down the line right now, I’m looking at what is immediately in front of us, I’m going to stay focused on that right now,” Mutter said.
Like many other communities around the state, Cumberland set only a temporary budget plan to start the new fiscal year as the coronavirus crisis sparked a statewide shutdown that has impacted the economy, and in turn the state’s overall revenues.
General Assembly leaders put off setting a final state budget while the crisis continued and there was no clear indication as to what role the federal government would play in making ends meet.
“I think that right now, with no state approved budget, and we following suit here in town, that’s the biggest “what’s next” that we are facing and obviously we don’t know what it is yet,” Mutter said.
From the municipal perspective, the town administration doesn’t have direct influence over school spending beyond the town’s contribution as a whole, and whatever changes that might occur at the state level in local aid could in turn be directed to changes in spending on the municipal side if that even can be done, according to Mutter.
The budget that was approved back in June included increases for just items such as encumbered debt service or set contractual costs already in place at the time and the town’s commitment to funding schools under its overall $105,870,000 budget.
With Cumberland shouldering a majority of its school costs, the budget breakdown includes $73.2 million for schools and $32.6 million for municipal operations, a mix limiting the town’s options for adjusting to reduced state support, according to Mutter.
The plan was supposed to be a short term solution to be refined when final state numbers were known but that has yet to happen, the mayor noted.
“We’re into November now, so by the time there is a reaction here, you are going to be halfway through the fiscal year,” Mutter said.
Unlike other communities in that predicament, Cumberland’s budget and tax levy are unsynchronized and the budget competed with a projected tax rate that actually is not finalized until next April before the first tax bills go out on May 1, according to Mutter.
“If there was a move not to continue to phase out the car tax, if we were to sustain cuts to revenue from the state further than projected, obviously that would necessitate some choices that would have to be made,” Mutter said.
Of course Cumberland is not alone in facing that fiscal uncertainty and Mutter said the municipalities are all at risk.
“I would say that we’re probably all in the situation where we hope that they don’t force a budget solution harshly upon municipalities in a variety of ways,” he said.
The loss of previously projected aid would force the reliance on other revenue sources that communities might not have, resulting in the need to raise taxes or cut spending, he explained.
There has been some improvement in the state’s projections of its own impacts from the crisis, Mutter noted, a drop from the original $900 million deficit forecast to the current projection of $300 million to $350 million.
So the question now is whether the federal government will be providing help to municipalities directly or at the least as aid to the state.
“Any aid that could help mitigate that deficit is certainly going help,” Mutter said.
“If it was to reach the state level, obviously it would filter down and help us at the municipal level because you wouldn’t have as much modifications to make on the state level to balance your budget,” Mutter said.
“I think we are all hoping for some mixture of those factors,” he said.
Aside from the budget concerns facing town as he heads to his second term, Mutter noted there are goals such as recreational improvements planned under the town’s just approved $2.5 million recreational bond, that he expects to move forward even as its other budget concerns loom.
The town has targeted block grant funding for improvements to its senior center and Mutter hoped that funding will also be unaffected by any pandemic related adjustments.
The planned improvements at Diamond Hill Park already have funding set aside from the $1 million the town council agreed to appropriate from a past town net metering agreement and another $600,000 from two legislative grant awards. Hopefully, the legislative grants for the improvements won’t be affected, he said.
“We think that the immediate projects that we have there are safe and we are going to continue along the process of making some significant improvements in that park,” Mutter said.
The town’s recreational bond is also expected to help with the development of athletic fields and other resources at the Mercy Woods parcel the town acquired under Murray’s administration, which has been eyed as a place for passive recreation but also some field space for local youth sports.
“None of that is carved in stone but there is some planned improvements for baseball, soccer and lacrosse, and football as well, so we are going to try to touch each of the groups with that bond,” Mutter said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75