Budget for police dogs stirs debate

New London - The City Council's passage of an ordinance last week mandating a minimum of four police dog teams has stirred up some debate about the cost of the program.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, in a statement this week through his executive assistant Zak Leavy, said Police Chief Margaret Ackley told the City Council last year that the ancillary costs associated with the existing K-9 program would be at least $100,000.

"If the proposed ordinance were to be passed, over the Mayor's veto, and dogs needed to be purchased and trained at the size prescribed by the ordinance, and all five officers' salary were included (i.e. four handlers and one trainer), then the costs of the program could easily be calculated to exceed $500,000," Finizio said in the statement.

Finizio, in his statement, said the current budget has not yet been finalized and the police chief, deputy chief, and finance director were all out of the office until next week and more definitive estimates were not immediately available.

Officer Todd Lynch, who is certified as a police dog trainer and is head of the department's K-9 unit, called the mayor's figures "absurd" and "ludicrous," accusing the mayor of trying to cause a panic and sway public opinion. Lynch is also president of the police union.

The department included about $77,000 in last year's budget for four dogs, and Lynch said he thought that figure was exorbitant.

Lynch said that East Lyme budgets $3,500 for two dogs, Waterford pays $10,000 for its two dogs and Norwich pays about $18,000 for three dogs.

"Not only is that number high," Lynch said of the mayor's estimates, "but we have several dogs that we don't have to train from scratch. (Finizio) is deciding on his own to add additional costs to the city when we don't have the money for it."

Lynch also pointed out that the salary of the officers is being paid regardless of whether or not they are part of a K-9 team.

Council President Michael Passero said the cost of the program is something of a red herring considering "representations to us were that the K-9 unit was fully funded in this year's budget."

Passero said the council fought against the reduction of the K-9 unit in last year's budget, only to see the unit dismantled anyway. The mayor has made no secret of his disapproval of patrol dogs, citing past complaints from bite victims. Earlier this year, he retired Bessie, a bloodhound used for tracking, after her partner took a job with the state police. He also retired Buck, a patrol dog cross-trained in narcotics detection, for medical reasons.

He has since agreed to bring back Bessie, who has been in a kennel in Norwich for the past two months. He has adamantly opposed the return of the German shepherd, Buck.

Finizio has vowed to veto the council's ordinance. Passero said he expects the council to vote at the Aug. 19 meeting to override the veto, which would require six of seven councilors' vote.

The vote will come even as the council wrestles with a rejection of the budget at referendum this week. But some councilors say that the cost of the K-9 program is secondary to the public safety aspect of maintaining the unit.

Once at a high of four teams, the department's unit has dwindled to one.

"You have to do a cost-benefit analysis," Passero said. "It's like debating whether we're going to arm our police officers with guns. From everything I've heard and read, this is a useful police department resource."

Council member Adam Sprecace said he's heard wide-ranging cost estimates and thinks the department's figures to maintain a K-9 unit is inflated.

"From my point of view, all I'm trying (is) to get that unit back where it was," Sprecace said. "I don't really see it as a cost increase. Depending on who you talk to, you're going to get different numbers. At a time when we're being told we need to cut the budget, we still need to maintain services people have come to expect."

Sprecace said he voted against the budget but not the tax rate increase associated with it because it was not the amount he disagreed with, but rather, how the money was being spent.

Lynch, who with his patrol dog Jasper remains the lone dog team on the force, said Buck has several good years of service left, and donations already raised from private citizens will help to pay for the supplements used to treat a mild case of arthritis.

g.smith@theday.com

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