Gov. Charlie Baker promised a gathering of hundreds of local officials on Friday that he would be a strong advocate for Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns, while offering reassurances that they will not have to shoulder the burden of state budget cuts.
Baker told the Massachusetts Municipal Association that he had signed an executive order — his first since taking office on Jan. 8 — that seeks to strengthen ties between state government and local communities.
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The Republican noted that his only elective office prior to becoming governor was as a selectman in Swampscott, a post he said left him with an appreciation of the difficulties facing municipal leaders.
Baker plans to announce within days steps for closing an estimated $765 million shortfall in the current state budget. But he and Democratic leaders in the Legislature have vowed to avoid cutting local aid.
"The path to balancing this year's budget ... is not going to run through the commonwealth's cities and towns," the governor said to loud applause.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, a former state representative, will serve as the administration's primary liaison to cities and towns, Baker said. The state's most recent lieutenant governor, Democrat Timothy Murray, played a similar role under former Gov. Deval Patrick.
Polito plans to begin a statewide tour next week to visit with mayors and other officials.
The executive order issued Friday creates a new entity called the Community Compact Cabinet, chaired by Polito, to "champion municipal interests" in state government. Among its priorities, Baker said, will be cutting red tape that often slows projects in cities and towns.
The order also creates a new position, senior deputy commissioner of local services, to focus on municipal issues.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the new governor is off to a good start with local leaders, noting that Baker released $100 million in local highway funds that had been held back by Patrick.
Cities and towns are hopeful that they will not only be spared cuts in the current budget, Beckwith said, but would receive increased funding equivalent to growth in tax revenues in the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. But he added that municipal leaders understand the financial challenges facing the Baker administration.
"Local officials are sensitive to that and know the state has difficult decisions to make," he said.