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Buster (copy)

Buster, a Belgian Malinois breed, is the Gage County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit. The K-9 program may be ending at the department.

The Gage County deputy in charge of the sheriff’s office K-9 unit will have the option to purchase the dog he’s handled for three years as he leaves the department.

Deputy Coltin Bebensee has handled Buster, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois, since the K-9 program was reinstated at the sheriff’s office around three years ago.

Bebensee notified the Gage County Board of Supervisors earlier this week that he’s accepted a position with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. He said family medical issues have resulted in frequent trips to Omaha, and being closer to that area was a factor in his decision.

He requested the dog be retired from the department and accompany him to Washington County as a pet, as that department has shown no interest in adding Buster to the department.

The situation, which marks the end of the K-9 program for the Gage County Sheriff’s Office, prompted lengthy debates by the County Board if Buster should be retired and given to Bebensee as a pet or sold at auction like a piece of property.

Much of the hour-long discussion during Wednesday’s meeting focused on declaring Buster as surplus and taking bids on the dog.

The board ultimately decided instead to offer the dog to Bebensee at a cost of $250 after it was stated the board couldn’t legally give the dog away for free.

The motion was made by board member Terry Jurgens, who speculated the dog would have little value to the county away from its handler.

“I see no sense in trying to move the dog someplace,” he said. “From what I hear if the handler is willing to take the dog, let him have the dog and cut our losses.”

Bebensee attended Monday’s board meeting where he said the dog is dependent on him, and told the board Buster won’t work with anyone else. This raised a debate among board members if the dog has remaining value to the department under a different handler, or if attempting to retrain the dog would be a wasted effort.

Dogs can be retired if they’re no longer able to perform their duties or service. Bebensee pointed out that if the two are separated and Buster won’t work with another deputy, it would justify retirement.

Gage County was able to add the K-9 unit thanks to around $10,000 in donations, and Gage County has invested more than $70,000 in equipment and training.

Gage County Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson stated that the department doesn’t currently have a deputy interested in working as a K-9 handler and that he’s already removed all costs associated with the program from his planned budget for the next fiscal year.

Board member Gary Lytle was adamantly against auctioning Buster to the highest bidder, saying the K-9 belongs with its handler and that the county would be stuck with boarding costs through the process, while Buster deteriorates in a kennel.

“This is absolutely stupid,” he said. “We have justification to say the dog is less than $500 in value, practically worthless. If we hold onto the dog we’re going to end up putting it into kennel service and you’ll end up paying $18 a day, which is $7,000 a year.

“The dog’s going to deteriorate in condition. There’s no value to us in this dog. I love that we had the K-9 program back. Look at it this way: we bought a lemon. He’s maybe not a lemon with Coltin beside him, but this dog is high strung to the point that it’s not serviceable unless you have that handler with it.”

The board voted 4-1 to allow Bebensee to purchase the dog, with Matt Bauman and Denis Byars absent. The lone vote in opposition was from board chairman Erich Tiemann who said the dog was worth more than $250.

He agreed that Buster belongs with Bebensee, but said it was his responsibility as a County Board member to be accountable for public dollars.

“This is just a really tough situation because if Buster was at the end of his service life it would be easy for everyone to retire him and send him with Coltin,” Tiemann said. “With the large dollar amount invested in this program, and then also the statue how we can get rid of items, this item being a living creature that is a dog that becomes part of a family. I’m sure Coltin feels Buster is part of his family. That’s the way it is when you have a dog you’re with every day. We are very conscious of how close they are. At the same time we have to follow statute and be objective.”

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