The fate of Gage County’s K-9 remains in limbo as the Board of Supervisors continues to sort out a difficult situation.
Last month deputy Coltin Bebensee, who handled Buster, the county’s drug dog, announced he was leaving the sheriff’s office to take a job in Washington County.
The move prompted a debate over Buster, boiling down to if Buster should be retired from service and remain with his handler, or if the dog still has value to Gage County or another law enforcement agency.
Following the board’s initial discussion it determined Buster had a value of $250, based largely on predictions the dog would be unable to perform to his current level under a different handler.
On June 5, the board voted to allow Bebensee to purchase Buster, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois. The $250 was anonymously donated, though County Attorney Roger Harris said a bill of sale was never completed.
Two weeks later the board voted to rescind its decision, saying they were mislead to believe the dog has a lower value than it really does.
“This probably would have gone away other than when we were presented information to start with, the information was false,” said board chairman Erich Tiemann. “It was not accurate information… That’s where a lot of this comes from. Had we known stuff up front then we could have gone about this differently and it would have been fine. False information was presented and then the dollar amount doesn’t let us give him away anymore.”
Tiemann said during an update at Monday’s committee meetings that three board members reached out to Ed Van Buren of Code 2 K-9 Services, who trained and sold Buster. Tiemann said the dog trainer estimated Buster to have a value much higher than $250, and said the dog could probably be trained to work with a different handler.
Bebensee said at a previous meeting 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.
Board members stated they initially acted quickly on the issue because of concerns how Buster would fare if he was kenneled. Bebensee has said Buster lost significant weight during previous times he’d been kenneled.
An exact value has not been determined, though it was stated if county property is worth more $2,500 it should be declared surplus and put out for bids.
“It’s easy to get carried away with a little animal and that’s an asset to this county that was purchased for the county, given to the county and (the county) spent a lot of money on it,” Harris said. “The sheriff has done a good job promoting this program, but I would caution the public, calm down, let’s take a look at this thing.”
Another factor in the decision to rescind the offer to sell Buster for $250 was that the dog was purchased thanks in large part to donations, and donors weren’t contacted to get input on the sale.
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Private donations accounted for more than $46,000 of the total cost, including training and equipment.
The county plans to have the dog evaluated by trainers to determine Buster’s usefulness and what its next steps should be.
“We need to determine what the working capability of the dog is, and how many working years there are,” Sheriff Millard Gustafson said. “If it’s getting towards the end, I say it works out, let Coltin get it because he’s going to have no trouble getting money, believe me. I’ve had some big dollar amounts thrown to the chief. That’s not going to be a problem.”
Gustafson said since last month he’s had 599 emails, every one of them supporting Buster ending up with Bebensee. He said calls have come in from Colorado to Connecticut from people willing to donate to help Bebensee pay for Buster.
As the board waits for a professional trainer to evaluate Buster, more issues are coming up.
Bebensee’s last day with the department was June 11, and Buster remained with him after his departure.
Tiemann said that since then, Buster sustained an undisclosed injury and was taken to a veterinarian and is currently on antibiotics. The injury took place when Buster was in the care of a non-county employee and not working, though since Gage County owns the dog it will likely be responsible for the associated costs.
Gustafson said since the dog is on medication its now being cared for by a Gage County resident, who is also not a county employee.
Harris stressed two weeks ago and again on Monday that Buster should be with someone who works for Gage County.
“First thing we’ve got to secure the dog,” Harris said. “That hasn’t been done as I understand it, which is extremely disconcerting from the standpoint of the legal council.”
He also advised that the county should talk to NERMA, its insurance carrier, to see if any incidents would be covered.
It seems unlikely that Buster will continue serving in Gage County. The sheriff’s office doesn’t have a deputy interested in leading the program and Gustafson previously said he’s written associated costs out of his preliminary budget for the next fiscal year. He also said the Beatrice Police Department was contacted, and is not interested in bringing Buster to the department.
“Heart strings are getting pulled on this,” he said. “No matter what, someone will be upset about it. We have to go by statue and if we can’t use him here, I’m sure Coltin’s going to have money to bid on him, but then it’s going to come down to does it go to some other law enforcement?”