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New Leash on Life for Canine Cop : Residents Rush to Fill Budget Gap, Save Pot-Sniffing Pooch

June 05, 1993|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — With residents rushing to rescue the city's only police dog from the budget ax, City Manager Kenneth C. Frank now says the Police Department's canine program will likely survive the current financial crunch.

At the center of the debate is Gero, a highly trained German shepherd that the police chief said is used mainly for public relations and to sniff out marijuana.

When the proposed 1993-94 budget was released and the public learned that the dog might be retired, city officials received a barrage of calls from concerned residents, including some who offered money to help keep Gero on patrol.

"The police dog will probably be here after 225 employees are laid off," Frank told the City Council this week.

Officer Ted Falencki, who has worked with Gero for more than three years, insists the dog actually saves the city money because he sometimes fills in for a police officer.

"For what the dog costs a year, he saves the city 10 times that," said Falencki, who regularly makes his rounds in the downtown area with Gero at his side.

In particular, Falencki said, it is cost effective for the city when he and the dog team up to answer burglar alarm calls. Otherwise, Falencki said, the Police Department would have to pay "two sworn officers to handle a call that can be done by Gero and myself."

In other potentially confrontational situations, Falencki said, the dog has a calming effect. "I pull up with the canine and people pretty much calm down," he said. "How do you fix a price tag to that?"

Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said Gero, whom he described as tranquil and affectionate with children but trained to attack on command, has boosted morale in the Police Department.

"When you need a police dog you need a police dog," he said. "The dog has a useful, intimidating purpose for police work. The dog can demand respect even from the most hardened criminals."

In an effort to save the canine program, the Assistance League of Laguna Beach has pledged $2,400 and an unnamed contributor has offered $200, Frank said. Kelly Boyd, owner of the Marine Room Tavern in downtown Laguna Beach, said he will contribute $500.

Donations are also expected from the Exchange Club of Laguna Beach and Soroptimist International of Laguna Beach, Purcell said.

"They will be donating some money toward us keeping the dog. . . ." Purcell said. "There was, in my opinion, an overwhelming amount of support from citizens in the community."

Gero was purchased for the city six years ago by Soroptimist International. The group paid $7,800 to buy and train the dog, to transport him from Germany and to ready a police car for a four-legged passenger.

According to the initial proposed budget, the city could save $2,400 by retiring Gero, including the amount spent on dog food and veterinary care. Purcell said another estimated $7,800 is spent each year to pay the canine officer to spend training the dog.

City officials say the rising tide of public support makes it unlikely the canine program will be eliminated, whether or not donations offset the entire expense.

It is still unclear whether any city employee will lose his or her job because of budget cuts in the coming year. The proposed budget calls for three workers be laid off. But on Tuesday, the day before layoff notices were supposed to be sent, the City Council agreed to reconsider that possibility.

The final budget is expected to be adopted June 15.

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