GREEN BAY — Imagine paying up to five times the going rate to rent your home. That's what the state is doing in renting dozens of homes. And the homes are for convicted sex offenders.
In a modest, older neighborhood on Green Bay's west side renters can find a pretty good deal.
Jason Kroening, along with his family, recently moved into a single-family home on Norwood Avenue and pays $675 a month in rent. Coming from Florida, Kroening was pleased with the low rents he found. But it turns out as a taxpayer he's actually paying for more than just his home.
"So if I told you, for one of your neighbors, the state is paying $2,500 a month for that house. What would be your reaction?" asked Mark Leland, On Special Assignment reporter for FOX 11 News.
"The state is paying for it?" asked Kroening.
"Yes," confirmed Leland. "Taxpayer dollars."
"It's disheartening, especially when I work hard and my wife works hard. We have a child. So yes it's disheartening. It's unfortunate. That's my view," said Kroening.
The home in question is similar in size to the Kroening home, but documents obtained from DHS - the state Department of Health Services - show the state is paying $2,500 a month. And it's to house a convicted sex offender on supervised released.
"Yup, like I said, it's upsetting. There's no other words I can - if I said other words you'd have to bleep them," said Kroening.
Neighbors figure a fair rent for the property should be $500 or $600 a month. That makes $2,500 - four to five times the going rate.
But that's not the only example or over-priced rental rates. Two blocks away, the state is renting this home for $1,800 a month to house another sex offender.
"It's plain stupid, spend people's tax money like that. It's crazy. Rent $2,500 and $1,800 that needs to stop now. It does," said Adrian Trudell of Green Bay.
The state is currently paying the rent on 28 homes across the state. Four of those are in Brown County. The total rent payments for all 28 homes is nearly $46,000 a month. That comes to $550,000 a year.
It should be pointed out these sex offenders, who we're not identifying, have served their full prison sentence. They are on supervised release from the state's Sand Ridge Treatment Facility in Mauston. That's where the most dangerous sex offenders after prison are involuntarily committed, if a judge rules they are sexually violent persons. Currently, 344 live at Sand Ridge. If a court decides they're no longer a danger, they can be released. Those who have made improvements but still need supervision can petition for supervised release.
Sand Ridge officials had originally agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the costs of supervised release. They even offered to give FOX 11 a tour of the facility. But all that was canceled by a DHS spokeswoman, who indicated the state agency was not happy when FOX 11 began to track down where the properties were located.
In an exchange of pre-interview emails though Leland did ask about those high rental costs. Lloyd Sinclair, the Sand Ridge community programs director, told him, "We seek to find the best bargains; we're all taxpayers and want to keep costs down."
Sinclair's email went on to say, "landlords know that we have so many impediments to finding suitable housing, and they also often put up with a fair share of harassment to themselves and sometime their families, so they charge us a premium."
Sinclair confirmed the state often contacts landlords they've worked with in the past when additional rental properties are needed. And according to state documents, two landlords it turns out rent multiple homes to the state. Three of the homes in Brown County are linked to Travis Enterprises. When contacted by phone, owner William Travis didn't want to talk about his rentals.
But real estate records show the Norwood Avenue home was purchased back in 2009 for just $32,000. At $2,500 a month, the state could have owned the home in just 13 months, but instead continues to pay the rent.
We asked Sand Ridge officials, why not just buy the homes? They indicated that was not an option and it would take the state Legislature to change that.
So FOX 11 tracked down State Sen. Michael Ellis (R-Neenah), president of the Senate, to find out.
"Is there a law that needs to be changed?" asked Leland.
"There's no law that says the state cannot own a facility and house people, that's not the deal," said Ellis.
Ellis looked into the rental costs and agreed buying homes makes more fiscal sense.
"Over 10 years of what we're doing is going to cost us $5.5 million," said Ellis. "We also know we could purchase 9 homes (at a generous $140,000 each) and save $4 million. We know that because it's just pure mathematics."
Ellis says the Legislature would have to alter the state statute that deals with how many sex offenders can be placed in a given area. His figures include placing three offenders in each purchased home.
Right now DHS policy allows no more than two offenders in the same residence. But in Brown County all four live alone in high priced rentals, including those two in Green Bay who are just two blocks apart.
"Well I know it sounds ridiculous. It does. But we're going to look into it and I know we can save money," said Ellis. "You triggered this thing, I did not. But it caught my attention when you were telling me what we were paying for rent. That's just money down the drain."
A special legislative committee recently issued a report evaluating the criteria for granting a sexually violent person supervised release, but there was no scrutiny of the rental costs. Ellis, who was not a part of the committee, says he will pursue a fiscal review.
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