Last updated: February 19. 2013 9:06PM - 539 Views

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Luzerne County officials must decide whether to continue the K-9 program at the prison.

The county spends $11,054 for the food, care and training of four dogs, but only two – Loky, 9, and Miki, 8 – are now on active duty.

The two remaining dogs – 6-year-olds Wyatt and Brutus – remain off duty because their handlers' positions were eliminated as part of budget cuts earlier this year. Those two K-9 officers bumped into corrections-officer positions held by workers with less seniority.

Prison Warden Joseph Piazza told council last week the county spends $11,054 for the food, care and training of all four dogs.

The county also faces the potential expense of back pay for all four employees who take home dogs.

Former prison K-9 officer Joseph Petrovich, who also was furloughed, has filed a suit in federal court arguing he is owed $71,059 in compensation and $17,764 in damages plus interest, attorney's fees and other costs.

Petrovich said the prison failed to follow a Fair Labor Standards Act requirement to provide additional compensation to K-9 officers who keep their dogs at their homes.

Pay issue has precedent

Case law has established handlers should receive an additional 30 minutes per day, seven days per week, for at-home care, including bathing, exercising, grooming and feeding the canines.

Handlers across the country have received back-pay settlements for at-home care in jurisdictions that didn't comply with the requirement, according to published reports.

Petrovich's dog, Rocky, has retired, and he purchased him for $1 as part of a county agreement. Piazza said Rocky has cancer.

Sgt. Gene Shinal, one of two remaining K-9 officers, said he plans to retire March 1, presumably with his 9-year-old canine, which may provide an opportunity for one of the two at-home dogs to return to work.

Shinal said the canines typically retire at 9 or 10 years old and rarely live past 12.

A strong start

County officials started the prison K-9 program in March 2005 to enhance drug detection and prevent disturbances.

Three canines were purchased for $25,500 each in 2004. Impressed with the results, the county spent $20,000 in 2008 on two additional canines to expand shift coverage.

Few county prisons have K-9 units in Pennsylvania.

Piazza has said he eliminated the three K-9 positions earlier this year because the staffing of guards had to take priority. The K-9 officers are limited in their ability to concentrate on inmates because they also are responsible for their dogs.

However, he told council last week he is reluctant to stop maintaining the at-home dogs because the county has made an investment.

One dog could probably take the place of five correctional officers, he said.

The canines are more thorough searching for drugs and a great deterrent, he said.

Would you like to look down the teeth of a German shepherd and say, ‘No I'm not coming out of my cell,' or ‘No, I'm not going to go into my cell?' Piazza said.

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