Colchester Police Officer Dave Dewey and his K9, Tazor, posed for a promotional photo in winter 2011. The Belgian Malinois has worked alongside the officer since 2006. Dewey has countless examples of crimes and lost person searches that would not have been solved without the dog. (Photo by John Baer)

Milton’s Selectboard will consider a proposal to add a K9 unit to the police department during its budget talks, due to take place in January.

At the board’s request, Chief Brett Van Noordt gave a detailed presentation at its September 17 meeting that covered the benefits of a police K9 and its anticipated annual costs.

Van Noordt said Milton – and the rest of Chittenden County – is a high-crime area with Interstate 89 and Routes 7 and 2 affording drug traffickers easy access to town. With special training, K9s “can have a dramatic effect on crime,” and be a deterrent to criminals, Van Noordt said.

A K9 is also a good PR tool. Milton would bring its K9 to open houses and the annual National Night Out event for drug crime awareness, Van Noordt said.

Milton relies on area K9 teams to assist in warrants and search-and-rescue efforts. Just last year, Colchester K9 Tazor and handler Officer David Dewey helped Milton officers find wanted criminal Mark Ryan, tracking him through the snow for more than an hour.

Chittenden County agencies have a mutual aid agreement and lend K9 and general support for no cost, Van Noordt said. According to Dewey’s data, he’s responded to Milton 17 times since January 2010.

Selectman John Gifford took issue with this arrangement.

“In this mutual aid system, we’re the receivers; we’re not putting any skin in the game,” he said. “What’s the right thing to do?”

Van Noordt also reported the expected costs. Pinebrook Kennels owners Chris and Missy Banke of Milton offered to donate a dog to the program; typically, they’d cost $5,000.

The largest upfront cost would be training and overtime shifts filled while the officer is away at the Vermont Police Academy for the basic K9 and drug interdiction courses. The 18-week basic class costs between about $1,400 to $3,200, depending on if the officer commutes to or stays at the Pittsford school.

The K9 officer would also get about $2,600 in overtime pay for commuting, about $960 more than a regular 12-hour shift for 18 weeks, Van Noordt’s data showed.

The chief estimates 10 to 25 percent of shifts will be filled as overtime in the K9 officer’s absence. This could cost between $4,200 and $10,400. If more officers are away – either on sick or parental leave, military deployments or other training – and all shifts are filled on overtime, it would cost $34,000.

The department budgeted $70,000 for overtime this fiscal year; it did the same last year and spent $67,000 of that, Finance Director Joanne Davis said. The department has spent about $18,050 to date.

It would also cost $1,600 to retrofit a Crown Victoria cruiser with a K9 cage and removable floor mats, Van Noordt said.

After that, there are minimal annual costs:
• $700/year for food,
• $100-300 for bite sleeves,
• $100 for leads,
• $50 each for grooming supplies, dog bowls and toys.

The officer also attends monthly trainings in Chittenden County twice a month; the classes are free, but the officer could accrue overtime if the training is held outside his or her shift, Van Noordt said.

Milton Veterinary Hospital offered annual checkups for free and emergency care at a 20 percent discount, office manager Sharon Hickey said. The routine exam, vaccines and tests cost about $145-195 for an adult canine, she said.

Tazor sniffs for drugs in a vehicle during a past training exercise. Though Milton has worked many times with Colchester’s K9, the department is considering acquiring its own dog. The Selectboard will discuss the proposal during budget talks this winter. (Photo courtesy of Dave Dewey)

No additional liability insurance is needed; in fact, if the dog dies in the line of duty, the town’s insurance carrier, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, will contribute $7,500 toward a new K9.

Despite this detail, board Chairman Lou Mossey said he needs more data. He said hidden costs could be aging out a cruiser and if the K9 role is considered a special unit that requires more pay than a regular patrol officer; this would be a negotiated deal, he said.

Board Vice-Chairman Darren Adams said Van Noordt’s proposal was detailed down to the cost of dog toys. He thinks residents would donate some items: Indeed, Milton resident Diane Tanner attended the meeting and vouched she’d pay for dog food.

Adams said he has an old collar, leash and bowl from his former German shepherd that he’d happily get rid of. He thinks the K9 idea is a no-brainer.

“I see absolutely no negative of the police adding a patrol dog to its capabilities,” he said.

Van Noordt said the program could be funded out of its asset forfeiture fund, money taken from drug dealers to further investigate drug crime. However, that isn’t a reliable source since police can’t predict how much they’ll net from the streets, he said.

In that case, Adams thinks the police’s annual budget could absorb the cost; Town Manager Brian Palaia said it couldn’t be done this year if overtime amounts to the worst-case scenario. Adams countered, saying that’s unlikely. He added in a follow-up interview that a K9 would likely increase the forfeiture fund.

Mossey is in favor of giving tools to employees but said he hasn’t seen statistics that prove K9s decrease crime.

“None of that was presented to us,” he said. “Pretty much all that we’ve been presented is that it’s a nice program to have.”

Dewey, the Colchester K9 handler, said these stats don’t exist and would be akin to determining how marked or unmarked vehicles affect crime rates. Instead, he has countless anecdotes of when a K9 was vital.

Like when a young autistic boy ran away from home and hid in a pine tree: His family passed him by, but once K9 Tazor showed up, the boy was found in less than 30 minutes on the dark, rainy night, Dewey recalled.

“Just having one more resource like that in the area would be huge for everybody,” he said. “It would also be a benefit to the department for having that dog be more available for them.”

Both Dewey and Colchester Lt. Doug Allen said training and overtime upfront are the biggest costs; after that, K9s don’t cost much at all, they said.

In a follow-up, Mossey said the program wasn’t included in this year’s budget, so taxpayers didn’t get a chance to weigh in.

Gifford also wants residents’ input. He understood waiting until FY14 but didn’t want to keep pushing the item down the road.

Mossey said he’s not delaying a decision by asking for more information. He still wants to see crime statistics and how often Milton calls K9s. Van Noordt told the Independent the department doesn’t have a function to track this.

Mossey also doesn’t want to short-change other departments’ needs by funding this program.

Adams was dubious of this and questioned why the issue needs so much debate. He said the board spent far less time considering the COPS grant, which requires the town pick up the fourth year salary and benefit costs of a new officer.

“A K9 is going to not even cost probably what we spend on healthcare benefits on one officer in one year,” Adams said. “Unless it’s a big eater.”