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Elma settles suit with K-9 officer for $60k

The city of Elma has agreed to settle a potential lawsuit with its former K-9 handler for $60,000 — roughly half of what Officer Josh Wheeler had demanded last fall.

Elma Mayor Dave Osgood says the decision means the city won’t be buying a new patrol car this year.

The city discontinued its K-9 program at the end of December and gave K-9 dog Riggs to his partner, citing the rising costs associated with having a drug detection dog that may not be as effective in a state where the people have legalized marijuana.Those rising costs turned out to be a demand from an attorney for Wheeler to pay three years’ worth of back wages for overtime he said he was owed for the care of the dog after hours.

Wheeler had originally agreed to a 4 percent specialty pay on top of his current salary to compensate for “the routine duty-related care and maintenance of assigned K-9s.” But Wheeler said the city should have been paying him more.

Wheeler engaged the services of a law firm to begin suing the city for alleged violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Although the lawsuit was never filed, the threat was made. Wheeler has never returned messages from The Vidette seeking comment.

Attorneys with the law office of Bean Gentry Wheeler and Peternell in Olympia said that the city owes Wheeler $117,690 in back wages for 500 hours of overtime per year, saying that Wheeler should have been paid these past three years.

The Elma City Council met during a closed-door executive session the night of March 17 to discuss the potential litigation. They emerged after — and approved a settlement with Wheeler for $60,000.

Osgood says the money will have to come out of the city’s cash strapped general fund, including its police fund. The police car was budgeted to cost $40,000 to $50,000.

“We’ve been trying to keep our police fleet up to date,” Osgood said. “We really need a new patrol car, but we have no other options here. There’s no where else to take the money. So, this is going to have to be the way it is.”

Osgood said since this is a “labor relations deal,” the city’s insurance company won’t cover it.

Osgood said that if the city had been forced to pay out the full $120,000 demanded by Wheeler then some other kind of cuts would have had to have happened.

“We would have had to cut staff,” Osgood said. “I don’t think we would have had any other option. … I’m just glad this is done and it’s all over. And we can move on.”

Asked if the situation had soured Osgood’s outlook at potentially re-implementing a K-9 program some day, Osgood replied, “We shouldn’t have to pay the same costs for a dog that we would pay for a person.”

Elma City Councilman David Blackett said that the council approved the settlement “because we really had no choice.”

Blackett said that the city’s attorney bills were piling up in combination of even higher potential damages that Wheeler could have won.

“And it was all coming out of our general fund,” Blackett said. “We didn’t do this because we wanted to, but because we had to.”