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Ben gets the OK: board approves K-9 unit

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM Three weeks after the proposal was first brought before the Board of Selectmen, a decision has been made as to the fate of Ben, the yellow Labrador retriever trained in single scent detection.

For the second week in a row, the meeting room at Town Hall was packed full of people interested in the select board's decision.

Ben will be joining the Wilbraham Police Department in a brand new K-9 unit, "hopefully by Jan. 1," according to Capt. Raymond Kallaugher, the officer who brought the original proposal before the selectmen.

At the Nov. 13 meeting, Kallaugher presented a detailed proposal to Selectmen James Thompson, David Barry and Patrick Brady. He returned Nov. 19 to answer questions posed by the board at the first meeting.

Overtime and budgetary concerns were the main items addressed at the second hearing.

"I spoke to several towns with K-9 units and they're run similarly to the way we plan to run ours," Kallaugher said. The towns included others in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut similar in size to Wilbraham. Their K-9 units averaged two overtime callouts a month.

Southwick had 26 calls in 2005 and 25 calls in 2006, Kallaugher reported. At two callouts a month for an average of three hours each, the yearly overtime money spent would equal about $2,000 at an overtime rate of $35 per hour.

Town Administrator Robert Weitz told the Board of Selectmen he spoke to the town administrator from Dracut, Mass., the other town in Massachusetts with a similar dog. "They said it's had very little impact on their overtime budget," Weitz said. "They're very happy with their dog."

The 3.5 hours of feeding and grooming the dog officer would use every week could be translated to compensatory time off, according to Police Chief Allen Stratton.

Three separate options were listed when it came to overtime cost projections. The dog officer could accept cash only (a total of approximately $8,890 a year, or 13 percent of the overtime budget), half cash and half compensatory time (a total of $4,445, or 6.5 percent of the overtime budget) or compensatory time only.

The issue of funding the K-9 unit for a length of time was also discussed. The dog, its training and a scent collection unit were all donated by Wilbraham Masonic Lodge. Veterinary care for the life of the dog was donated by Eastfield Hospital for Animals. The Junior Women's Club will donate food for the working life of the dog. The Scantic Valley YMCA has donated $1,200 for the cross-training of the dog in narcotics detection. UNICO has offered to donate $1,000 annually to fund the K-9 unit.

Without all the donations, the start up cost of the unit would total more than $20,000. With, the start up cost is $4,689, which covers the conversion of an existing police squad car into a K-9 friendly vehicle, the yearly insurance on that vehicle and a kennel. Recurring fees would total approximately $1,250 for recertification, cleaning supplies and toys.

John Wilkinson Sr., a town resident, mentioned once the dog is trained in narcotics detection the confiscation will help bring in revenue for the K-9 unit.

Residents, the Board of Selectmen and the police department are thinking ahead to the future of the K-9 unit already.

"We're not signing a lifetime agreement with this," Barry said.

"We're prepared to close the program if it can't be funded," Stratton added.

Thompson compared the program to a certain preventative measure. "Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on sprinklers hoping they never go off," he said. The dog could save thousands of dollars and many man hours if a child or senior citizen is reported missing or a criminal is on the run and needs to be found.

"Canine services when needed are invaluable," Stratton said.

The motion to accept the dog and develop a K-9 unit passed by a vote of 2 - 1. The motion to establish a gift fund to pay for recurring expenses, overtime policy approval and the sending of an official thank you letter to the Masons were approved as well.

"We're really excited," Kallaugher told Reminder Publications. "This is really going to allow the department to take a leap forward in service and really increase our efficiency."