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Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha and one of the smartest investors ever, once mused, "You don't know who's swimming naked until the tide goes out." Well, the tide is out, and all those local department heads who have been driving Newtown'



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Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha and one of the smartest investors ever, once mused, “You don’t know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” Well, the tide is out, and all those local department heads who have been driving Newtown’s budget outlays up by five and six percent a year with their “bare bones” budgets are feeling particularly naked heading into 2009.

The Board of Finance, which is hoping to avoid any increase in taxes in the coming year, is promising to expose as many pockets of unnecessary spending as it can in the coming months. Just how indecent that exposure turns out to be may determine what we will all be talking about at the end of the year, when Newtown elects a new local government.

In a memo to other town officials last month, Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze issued a warning: “To be clear, this coming budget year, and potential subsequent years, cannot be viewed in the same light as previous budget years,” adding that the 2009-2010 budget will take shape “in a manner consistent with the severity of the current economic downturn.” In other words, town departments will not be getting everything they want and perhaps not even everything they need.

Making choices at the beginning of a new year in an environment of prosperity and extravagance tends to inspire more dreams than discipline, which is not always a bad thing. Without visionaries willing to ignore conventional wisdom and spend a little money, our progress tends to be incremental at best. But there comes a time, like the current time, when every resource seems stretched to its limit by the unwise excesses of dreamers, and the virtues of discipline become apparent. The sudden need of a fig leaf tends to concentrate the mind and inspire creativity.

With that sudden need in mind, we encourage our budgetmakers to — as they are so fond of saying — “think outside the box.” The box in this case should be construed to be the borders of Newtown. Doing more with what you have can mean sharing underused resources with others. With the state projecting a $6 billion deficit over the next two years, aid to towns and cities will dry up. Individual municipalities that have cut back on highway repairs and deferred maintenance on facilities are running out of rocks to look under for savings.

In some areas of the state, towns and cities are increasingly looking to each other for savings in everything from animal control to IT development and programming. Newtown has already taken preliminary steps with some of its neighbors to pool resources and revenues to bring new efficiencies to vital services. Newtown’s police have established a regional traffic unit with Bethel and Redding, allowing all three towns to raise the profile of their traffic enforcement activities while reducing overtime budgets. Newtown has also taken on Bridgewater and Roxbury as partners in a regional health district, sharing revenues and services to the benefit of all three towns. But more can be done.

Newtown has a state-of-the-art GIS (geographic information system) department that may be able to sell its services to other towns in the area. When the town’s new dog pound becomes a reality, perhaps it can be designed with a regional service in mind. Savings in interlocal contracted services might be realized by negotiating larger contracts at lower prices.

Connecticut does not make it easy to take a regional approach in providing public services; there are no county governments, and protections for unions in state law can create obstacles to regional cooperation. But this is an area that cash-strapped towns are already exploring around the state and the nation. Newtown needs to do the same or be prepared to stand alone — naked.

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