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The Gage County Sheriff’s K-9 program may be coming to an end in the near future after the current K-9 handler announced he’s taking a position with a different Nebraska county.

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

Bebensee attended Monday’s Board of Supervisors committee meetings to notify the board 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.

Bebensee’s announcement led the board to a debate how to move forward with the K-9 program.

Buster was trained with Bebensee, who has worked with the dog since it was selected to come to Gage County.

He said the dog is dependent on him, and told the board Buster won’t work with anyone else.

“He’s very handler sensitive, which means he’s very dependent on me,” Bebensee said. “If I were to take him out of the truck right now you would think he’s a skeleton because I’ve been gone for two weeks and all he does, and (Sheriff Millard Gustafson) can attest to this, when I’m gone and they’re kenneling him is just spins. He doesn’t eat because he’s continuously looking for me.

“My worry is we already had issues with the beginning of our trial to stick him with a different handler. He’s not going to attach. He’s just going to continuously look for me.”

Bebensee told the board that Buster is his best friend, and requested the dog be retired or sold to him.

The request raised questions if Buster can be retired, since he likely still has around six more years of useful service left. 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.

“If a dog comes up for retirement, according to our policy and many other county policies, every effort goes to giving the dog to the current handler,” he said. “Granted we’re kind of a unique situation right now where we’re not necessarily retiring him due to age or illness, but due to me taking employment elsewhere.”

It was stated at the meeting that Washington County already has a K-9 unit and is not interested in purchasing Buster from Gage County to continue working with Bebensee there. Bebensee also said the Beatrice Police Department, which hopes to expand its own K-9 unit to add a second dog, is not interested in Buster.

County Board Chairman Erich Tiemann expressed a desire for Buster to stay in the area. Gage County was able to add the K-9 unit thanks to around $10,000 in donations. Tiemann said the county contributed heavily to add the program and it would be a disservice to the citizens to retire the dog when it has service left.

Also, as the county struggles to trim budgets while raising taxes to pay the Beatrice 6 judgment, support for getting a different dog would likely be flat.

“My biggest concern would be if we don’t find another place for that dog to go in county, this is the death of a K-9 program in Gage County for at least 20 years, if not more,” Tiemann said. “No one will support that again. We have $10,000 in a dog that’s donated, but there’s tens of thousands beyond that in training, cage, setting up the vehicle. You’re not looking at a donated dog. You’re looking at $70,000 in actual costs, and that doesn’t even account for all the training and stuff. We’re looking at the better part of $100,000 invested in (Bebensee) and this dog. If we would just let that dog go for a dollar I think we would be doing a disservice to everyone.”

It was also stated that the sheriff’s office doesn’t currently have a deputy interested in leading Buster. Even if it did, Gustafson said in tight budget times the cost of training another deputy to handle Buster isn’t practical at this time.

“Let’s face it, I’m not going to have a K-9 program for a while because the budget is too tight,” he said. “That’s a huge cost for the county. It’s a good program. If someone gave me a big check and we had someone interested, I’d look at it. Right now it’s not in the cards. It’s not going to be with the money the way it is.”

Board member Matt Bauman supported letting Bebensee take Buster, agreeing the dog would be no use to the department without the handler he trained with.

“To me it’s a no-brainer, the dog goes with you,” he said. “I think that’s just the way it goes. It’s just how do we recover to be able to move forward with ever doing this program in the future… For us to keep this dog makes no sense. The dog would be a wreck.”

The board also debated how to consider Buster, in terms of the K-9's role with the department.

Tiemann reluctantly compared Buster to the department’s radios. The county invested money to train Buster, as well as equipment and outfitting a vehicle for the dog. Therefore, Tiemann said the County Board needs to be accountable for the funds and get as much use out of Buster as the county can.

“If we purchase something the same as radios, looking at the K-9 the same as radios sounds cold, but we’re looking at an investment,” he said. “What is our return on that investment, what is our expense out.”

Board member Gary Lytle disagreed, saying Buster has similar rights as his handler or any other law enforcement officer.

“Is Coltin a piece of equipment that we purchased?” Lytle asked. “Coltin went through the same training just like the dog. We hired him, we pay money just the same. The dog is an officer. He’s not a piece of equipment.”

“Coltin’s a person,” Tiemann responded.

Bebensee’s last day with the department is June 11. The County Board’s  Wednesday meeting features an item to continue discussing the future of the K-9 program, with a possibility the board will take action on the issue.

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