Gage County is discontinuing its K-9 program just one year after its dog was recertified with a new handler at the sheriff’s office.
The County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved declaring its K-9, “Buster” surplus and transferring all associated equipment to Saline County.
Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson said it was a difficult decision to end the program, and both the funding and opinion of current handler Dax Brydle were factors.
"Dax would have probably kept on doing it, but it came down to money,” Gustafson said. “We just thought this was the best way to part ways with no hard feelings and use him over here as the time comes.”
The item was initially on the board’s consent agenda, where multiple items considered routine are voted on at once without discussion, though approving the memorandum of understanding was pulled from the consent agenda by board member Terry Jurgens, who inquired what the county will receive in exchange for Buster.
Gage County's only payment will be $6,000 for a 2013 Dodge Ram pickup that was outfitted to be the K-9 unit. The departments will work together and Buster is expected to still serve in Gage County as allowed.
Gustafson said the department budgets $10,000 annually for costs associated with Buster, primarily training and veterinary visits. Most of Buster’s food is donated.
The program has been a source of controversy since last June when the K-9’s initial handler announced he was leaving the department to take another job, prompting several discussions at County Board meetings that boiled down to if Buster, a Belgian Malinois, should be retired and given to deputy Coltin Bebensee to have as a pet, or if Buster could be retrained with a different handler.
The board voted to allow Buster to be sold to Bebensee last June.
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.
Two weeks later the board voted to rescind its decision, saying they were misled to believe the dog has a lower value than it really does.
Buster was evaluated in Omaha and determined at that time to have a dollar value to be at least $4,000, and evaluators said the dog appeared able to work with a different handler. The canine was recertified with a different handler at the sheriff’s office in October 2019.
Based on that evaluation, Buster should have around three years of service life left from now.
The dog was purchased thanks in large part to donations, and donors expressed disappointment last year and feelings that their donations were going to waste if the dog stopped working in Gage County.
Private donations accounted for more than $46,000 of the total cost of around $100,000, including training and equipment.
Gustafson said the major donors were contacted before the agreement with Saline County.
“We talked to the big contributors and they all kind of understand,” Gustafson said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes.”
He added other departments may have been willing to purchase Buster, but the agreement with Saline County will keep the dog close to home and also allow the sheriff’s office to still use its services as needed and as the K-9 is available.
“We had one agency in the metro agency that helped train him and wanted him,” Gustafson said. “This opportunity came up to keep him here in our area and use him on a regular basis, it was by far the best scenario to do.
“He’s not in the county but he’s not gone. He’ll be here for us when we need him. He’ll be around still.”
He added the the K-9 program in Gage County won’t be returning anytime soon.
“There was a lot that went into it to provide for the program,” he said. “Never say never, but it’s probably going to be a while.”