Mutter budget level-funds School Department

Mutter budget level-funds School Department

CUMBERLAND – Mayor Jeff Mutter has proposed a 2019-2020 budget he says is the first step in a two-step process toward a structurally balanced budget that stops using surplus money to fill holes.

By deciding to eliminate surplus spending over two years, at $860,000 per year, there is less money overall to work with, says Mutter. His budget level-funds the School Department, meaning no additional operational money for the schools in the 2019-2020 year.

“It’s presented in kind of this two-year fix to get us off that fund balance that we’ve been feasting on to balance our books,” said Mutter this week.
In a letter to the editor this week, School Committee Chairman Paul DiModica says level funding for schools is “bad for Cumberland.”

“Once again, a mayor of Cumberland has found it fit to propose level funding of the school system. Why is it that the school system must take the brunt at budget time? The school system is making great strides and our state ranking has continued to rise,” he writes.

“Mutter recently said that you don’t take from one’s rainy day fund (surplus) to buy groceries, said DiModica, “but that is what the school system will be doing. We will continue to draw down the school surplus not for one-time items but daily expenses that you don’t know where the funding will come from next year.”

Cuts across the board will happen if the Town Council does not find a way to meet the needs of students in Cumberland, said DiModica.

“You don’t take two steps forward and then have to take three steps (backward) at budget time,” he said, asking that members of the public again come out to public meetings to take the mayor and council out of their comfort zone.

Mutter said he is proposing having the town pick up school master lease payments totaling $735,000.

The mayor said he met with school officials last Friday to inform them of his plan. It was suggested that a three-year or four-year plan to eliminate spending of savings money in the budget plan would leave more for the schools, but he said after spending the weekend and Monday considering options, he ultimately settled on doing it in a two-year timeframe, or $860,000 this year and $860,000 next year.

That plan will eliminate the $1.72 million the town has been paying annually out of its surplus accounts to cover bills. Fund balance was never intended to be used year after year for balancing the budget, said Mutter. He offered a reminder of his accusations of “levymandering” last year, where he suggested former Mayor Bill Murray was changing tax collection estimates to avoid raising taxes, leaving the town with less revenue.

Mutter’s $102 million budget, which raises taxes by the maximum levy increase of 3.45 percent, now heads to the council. A first public hearing will be held Wednesday, May 29, at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at Town Hall. A second hearing and first vote will be held June 3 at 6:30 p.m., and a final vote will be held June 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Mutter is blaming a number of other factors for a budget he says is about as tight as possible, including a trash contract that proved more expensive than projected, lost library housing aid, lower overall revenues, master leases signed after the budget was passed last year, and unexpected legal fees. There are also a number of contractual items that can’t be modified, he said.

Aside from a $50,000 investment in traffic-calming measures, there are few other extras, he said.

Just because Mutter is proposing a 3.45 percent increase on the tax levy doesn’t mean that’s where it will end up. Cumberland has a rare unsynchronized tax system where the tax rate won’t be determined until the end of the fiscal year next spring. Complicating matters further, said Mutter, is that there’s a town-wide revaluation set to go into effect next spring.

That said, Mutter told The Valley Breeze he doesn’t expect to find much in savings within the budget, with many fixed items.

“There’s no potential for significant savings,” he said. Only a good year for health care claims will put a significant dent in the problem, he said.

Starting with the new year July 1, the town will need to “grind this budget” as hard as possible,” he said. This is not a pleasant spending plan, he said, with virtually no money for capital improvements, or just $100,000.

Mutter said his budget doesn’t include projected energy savings, at between $150,000 and $200,000, and doesn’t include a $300,000 payment from the state toward upgrades at Diamond Hill Park.