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.

Gage County’s drug dog will be evaluated next week to determine if the dog is fit to continue working and, officials hope, establish a dollar amount regarding the value of the dog.

The fate of Buster, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois, has been in limbo since last month when his deputy handler announced he was leaving the sheriff’s office in Gage County 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.

During Wednesday’s regular board meeting, Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson said next week Buster will be taken to Omaha and evaluated by another department.

“The Omaha Police Department K-9 people are going to do an evaluation,” he said. “It will take a day for them to do that and then they’re report their findings back to me and we’ll know where we stand at that point for the value of the dog and if it’s viable to continue on.”

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 his handler, Coltin Bebensee to purchase Buster. 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.

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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.

Another factor in the decision to rescind the offer to sell Buster was that the dog was purchased thanks in large part to donations, and donors weren’t contacted to get input on the sale. Some later expressed disappointment 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.

It seems unlikely that Buster will continue serving in Gage County. Gustafson said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have a deputy interested in leading the program, though he’s asking his deputies and said Wednesday a new deputy could be hired with the stipulation that he or she lead the K-9 unit, if the county is adamant about keeping the program alive.

“We’re in the process now of personally contacting each of our deputies to make sure we’ve covered if there’s anybody there who has an interest in doing this,” he said. “I’ll know at that point in time we’re going to have anybody there interested in taking the dog over, if that’s the direction we’re going to go.”

Bebensee’s last day with the department was June 11, and Buster remained with him after his departure. Since then, Gustafson said on Wednesday that Buster sustained a neck injury. His understanding was that Buster’s collar got caught on something, and the dog returned to Gage County for treatment.

Buster has since been staying with a Beatrice resident who doesn’t work for the county.

Following a strong recommendation from County Attorney Roger Harris that the dog should remain with a current county worker to prevent liability concerns, Gustafson said he will be watching Buster, himself.

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