Lawmaker says cost cuts to housing sex offenders fall short

GREEN BAY – Another sex offender being placed on supervised release from the state’s secure treatment facility is moving into a state-rented home in Green Bay.

But this time the placement won’t cost taxpayers any excessive money in rent. That’s because of changes being made by the Department of Health Services following a FOX 11 Investigates report exposing the high rental costs.

But is it enough? Not according to one area lawmaker.

Convicted sex offender Chester Flowers will be released from Sand Ridge Treatment Center in Mauston on Wednesday. His treatment there, following prison time, makes him eligible for supervised release at taxpayer expense.

The Green Bay community has already been notified of where Flowers will live. And he won’t live in the house alone. You see the state has been renting the home for the past several years to house another sex offender on supervised release. So now there will be two living there and it won’t cost any more. But the state already pays $1,800 a month in rent. That’s two to three times what neighbors of similar sized homes pay.

In our report last year, FOX11 Investigates uncovered several homes where the state paid inflated rents to house sex offenders. It prompted a state audit with recommendations made to the Department of Health Services to cut costs.

“One of the reasons they’re now shaping up a little bit is because of the expose you put out on your station,” said State Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah.

State Senator Ellis pushed for that state audit after FOX 11 Investigates urged him to act on our findings. Those findings were confirmed by the audit. And this week, Ellis received the DHS response to audit bureau’s money-saving recommendations.

“Overall it’s a start but it’s still not the solution,” said Ellis.

Here is what DHS is doing.

DHS has come up with a written policy to seek out potential rentals. Among the written stipulations are make efforts to secure monthly “rents closer to fair market value,” and “include utilities and maintenance costs.” The state currently pays extra for those at taxpayer expense.

DHS has also issued a bid for proposals to find other property owners who might be willing to rent to the state. And existing landlords were contacted in an effort to re-negotiate current leases. That effort was unsuccessful.

FOX 11’s Mark Leland contacted a Green Bay landlord by phone that has rented three homes to the state. William Travis first indicated he did renegotiate leases, but when questioned further said “we’re done here” and hung up.

Ellis says to eliminate price gauging by landlords and save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, the state needs to own its own rentals. A suggestion he raised last year.

“I don’t see that,” said Ellis.

“They didn’t consider it,” asked FOX 11’s Mark Leland.

“Well that’s one of the points were upset about,” Ellis replied.

Ellis believes competition is the only thing that will drive down rental costs, and the state may have to be that competition.

“I’ll bet you the minute we get into the housing business, these people who are not willing to negotiate are going to lose their sugar daddys,” said Ellis.

FOX 11 spoke with Jason Cram who heads up the supervised release program, last fall as he worked to address the audit recommendations.

“What we’d like to be able to do is have a list of firms, housing firms, who we can call upon and say do you have any available housing in Northwest Wisconsin, or Northeast Wisconsin and hopefully we can develop that list throughout procurement process,” said Cram.

Since then DHS has also made more of an effort to put two sex offenders in homes previously occupied by just one. Last year 3 out of 28 rentals had two roommates. When Flowers moves into his Green Bay rental there will be 7 homes housing two sex offenders.

DHS officials didn’t want to talk to us about the changes. They referred FOX 11 Investigates to the written response to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

In it Secretary Rhoades states:

“The DHS will continue to ensure that the Supervised Release Program protects Wisconsin’s most vulnerable citizens and promotes community safety while it continues to identify and implement ways to reduce overall program costs.”

DHS indicates through doubling up sex offenders it has been able to eliminate two leases this year, saving nearly $40,000 in rent.

“The response has been we are saving some money but you’re saying it could be a lot more,” said FOX 11’s Mark Leland.

“It could be a lot more and it should be a lot more,” replied Ellis.

Ellis plans to question DHS officials on why they haven’t considered his proposal to purchase the housing properties to cut out the middle man. He says if necessary he’ll push for legislation to require it.

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