MADISON - The State of Wisconsin wants to know if your tax dollars are being wasted on housing costs for sex offenders. A formal audit of the sex offender supervised release program was ordered Tuesday.
A FOX 11 investigation found examples of high rent, with the state paying $2,500 a month to rent a home in Green Bay, while similar houses rent for $600. And $1,600 a month is being paid for a house in Manitowoc where neighbors with larger space pay as little as $400. In each case, one sex offender resides at each residence.
Members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee want answers as to the cost and placement of sex offenders on supervised release.
It is also directing the Legislative Audit Bureau to evaluate how these sex offenders are placed in our communities.
The push for an audit found unanimous support from the bipartisan committee members on hand. At issue are taxpayer-funded rental properties used to house sex offenders on supervised release.
"I applaud the citizens that have highlighted this and your TV station also we're looking for ways to do things cheaper," said State Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Allouez) co-chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
"The audit as scoped is framed around supervised release," said Joe Chrisman, state auditor.
Chrisman indicates his investigation will include a cost analysis of the supervised release program and options to save money. Legislative rules requiring the placement of sex offenders will also be scrutinized to look at savings, and community safety.
A public hearing, prior to approving the audit, provided testimony supporting the review. Speaking out were several Northeast Wisconsin residents who had been trying to get the legislature to take notice of the issue for more than a year.
"If we sound somewhat upset, it's probably because we are. We don't mean anything to be mean or vicious, but we've been frustrated by the process," said Jack Lechler of Kiel.
"We have spent, over the last year and a half, a lot of hours on this, and to me, the whole system - the cost - is way out of line," added Don Mogenson of Kiel.
The supervised release program is run through the Sand Ridge treatment center in Mauston, where the most violent sex offenders after serving their prison time are committed.
Sand Ridge paid $550,000 to rent 28 homes for sex offenders last year. Sand Ridge officials acknowledge a premium is currently paid in order to secure some of its rentals, and they now welcome any cost-saving ideas.
"We hope that maybe out of this process there will be other ideas we haven't explored," said Deb McCulloch, Sand Ridge director after the hearing.
An audit of the program comes at a good time, with Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget adding funds to the supervised release program over the next couple of years in anticipation of more sex offenders being placed on supervised release.
The two-year proposed budget includes an additional $900,000 for the supervised release program the first year, with another $1.4 million the second year with sex offenders on supervised release estimated to increase from 33 today to 43 by 2015.
In undertaking the audit, committee members raised their own questions.
"Does it make sense if the state owns some of the property people are place in as opposed to having private folks or private corporations?" said State Rep. Melissa Sargeant (D-Madison).
That's just one of many questions likely to be address in the audit which is scheduled to be complete this summer. At that time, legislators say, they will review the findings to see which cost-saving suggestions can be implemented, and that may include changing current laws.
State leaders were quick to react to the approval of an audit.
Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Kevin Moore said he welcomes the audit, but added: "While looking for efficiencies and saving tax dollars is always an important mission, in this case that has to be weighed and balanced with the right of Wisconsin residents to be safe."
State Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah), who along with State Sen. Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan) requested the audit based on the FOX 11 investigation findings, also issued a statement.
"I'm glad that the Legislative Audit Bureau will be investigation these inflated rates and hopefully make recommendations to lower costs," said Ellis.
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