MARINETTE—There is joy on Mudbrook Road in the Town of Porterfield.
Neighbors of that quiet road hugged—and some shed tears—Tuesday afternoon in the lobby of the Herbert L. Williams Theatre on the UW-Green Bay, Marinette Campus following a decision by the Marinette County Board that will keep a violent sex offender from being placed in that location.
About 100 people attended the board meeting and 16 of them spoke during the public comment section that took about 90 minutes. Supervisors discussed the matter for another two hours before reaching their decision.
“I think Mudbrook Road residents did an amazing job educating the board on the logistics of the property,” said Sarah Cherney Hanson in the lobby after the board’s decision. She lives on the road with her husband Matt and their family.
Matt Hanson spoke during public comment and he held high a photo of his three young children. “I will not let one of these individuals be harmed,” he said.
Matthew Lutze, a neighborhood resident and a Marinette police officer, said, “It really shows that we’re a community that cares about one another.”
The board voted 28-2 against the development of a home for transitional living on a county-owned parcel, W4802 Mudbrook Road, including purchase of a used sectional home from Bay Area Homes and other expenses related to development of property at an estimated total cost of $115,000.
Supervisors Rick Polzin and Glenn Broderick voted in favor.
Polzin, also a Marinette alderman, spoke on comments that a transitional home could be located in the City of Marinette, possibly by the Law Enforcement Center on University Drive.
“I don’t want to put out false hopes that there’s all kinds of places where these people are going to be welcome—they’re not,” he said, adding it would be at least a six-month city project assuming it got through the committee process.
“To hold out hope that somebody else is going to do this, I don’t see it. I think all we’re doing is trading one group of folks that are here for another group of folks that will show up whenever we decide to do this.”
Polzin said the county ultimately must decide where to place these type of offenders.
“We have no option but to place these people or pay to have them placed,” he said. “It isn’t like this is going to go away. All we’re going to do is start the meter running until we make a decision and that could stretch out for who knows how long.”
County Administrator John Lefebvre said the county received notice on Feb. 10 that an offender from the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, Wisconsin, will be released to Marinette County. That center houses “Chapter 980” offenders, which according to state statutes are labeled “Sexually Violent Person Commitments.”
Wisconsin Chapter 980, which took effect in 1994, allows civil commitment and treatment for certain sex offenders after they complete criminal sentences. For many years after Chapter 980 took effect, violent sex offenders have faced hurdles finding places to live. In 2017, Act 184 was adopted which required counties where the offenders were convicted to find suitable housing after they have completed their prison sentences.
If a county can’t find suitable housing, it risks a forfeiture of $500 to $1,000 per day.
On March 11, the county’s 980 Committee met in closed session to discuss 980 placement. No action was taken when that committee returned to open session.
The Administrative Committee unanimously approved the motion for the development of a transitional home on March 18. That panel also unanimously approved a motion for Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison and Lefebvre to negotiate a lease with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Supervised Release Program.
During the public comment section Tuesday, speakers touched on many negative aspects of having a violent sex offender in their neighborhood: Safety of women and children, property values, slow response time for law enforcement, the mental capacity of the offenders, availability for offenders to get property medication and treatment and poor cellphone service to name a few.
Joe Evancheck spoke about safety of residents in the neighborhood. He compared the offender to a reptile.
“It’s like having a rattlesnake placed in your house in a cage,” he said. “You have now lost the security in your very own house. … That snake is dangerous, poisonous and very unpredictable. It’s constantly on your mind, at home and even away from your house.”
Christy Jardeen said the offender in question (James M. Harris) was convicted of sexually assaulting his own 4-year-old daughter on multiple occasions. She said the county can’t “provide bait” for this predator.
Harris, now 52, was convicted of second degree sexual assault of a child in Marinette County Circuit Court in 1997. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He lived on Wells Street in Marinette at that time.
Tim McFadden urged supervisors to listen to their constituents.
“You have a lot of information to chew on—emails, text message, phone calls,” he said. “Listen to the public that voted you in.”
Supervisor Bill Stankevich said he was voting no.
“These are our people,” he said. “I would rather quit being a town chairman and a county board member then to inflict this kind of pain on them. There’s always a ‘Hail Mary.’ I know we’ve got our backs against the wall. We’ve got to have an answer. I’m voting no on this.”
Supervisor Connie Seefeldt suggested organizing a citizens committee to tackle the issue of placing violent sex offenders. Supervisor Ginger Deschane agreed, “I know it’s going to cost some money. We’ve spent money on dumber things.”
Mattison, the county’s attorney, responded to insinuations that the county knew about this placement for long time. She explained that offenders in Sand Ridge can petition for release and then hearings take place.
“No one is keeping a secret; the court records are open and available,” she said.
Mattison said the county doesn’t always know when the court is going to authorize release.
“Once the court has determined that’s appropriate, the 980 Committee is to put together a plan,” she said. “DHS (Department of Health Services) has to approve that plan and then it’s presented to the court.”
Mattison said the sex offender is question is absolutely being released.
“He was in court Feb. 10 and the judge ordered the county to find an appropriate placement,” she said.
Mattison said there nearly 175 registered sex offenders in Marinette County and only about 50 are monitored. She said the offenders in Sand Ridge receive extensive treatment and the recidivism rate (likelihood to reoffend) is far lower than the general population.
“Everybody doesn’t want sex offenders in your backyard; there are plenty of sex offenders in your backyard,” she said.
Marinette County has another 980 sex offender home in Pound and Mattison said there have been no incidents there with the exception of some GPS monitoring failures not the fault of the offenders.
Both Mattison and Lefebvre explained that there are no private entities which stepped forward to house 980 offenders so it is up to the county.
“It’s easy to say we don’t want them here,” Mattison said. “It’s the law. Like it or not, it’s the law. That person needs to be placed in Marinette County and there’s very strict criteria where the placement is.”
The county is now back to square one in terms of a finding a place to house this offender.
Sarah Cherney Hanson said she had empathy for county supervisors and leaders.
“They were in a very tough position,” she said. “I don’t blame John or Gale. They were just doing their jobs and I believe both of them do a very good job. However, the county board is voted in to represent their constituents, which is us. I’m glad they heard our voice and voted in our favor.”
EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—As much of the nation resurfaces after more than a year beneath the murky waters of the fiscal and social crisis imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, City of Marinette officials reviewed the financial and operational progress of the REC Center during a recent Finance & Insurance committee meeting.
Such discussion represents the continued and transparent communication among city officials and councilmembers to ensure that everyone, including the public, remains on the same page when it comes to understanding the progress and goals of the facility. According to various council and committee members, from the moment of the facility’s inception, Marinette officials strove to maintain an open dialog with the public and each other, regarding the center’s initial inception to the planning and subsequent construction and operation of the center, particularly as it relates to finances.
“Where the REC fits in the budget and how much we earmark for it and how much we look at future expenses, is always something that we have worked on,” said Mayor Steve Genisot. “We’ve always brought (information) that to council and we’ve always informed everyone as much as we can.”
WHAT THE DATA SHOWS
During the meeting, the committee rehashed REC financial data presented by City Finance Director Jackie Miller. It offered a picture that continues to show the potential of the facility, despite a few bumps in the road.
“The REC Center’s expenses (employees, management, infrastructure and, etc.) were all designed and planned for in a way to open and staff (the facility) appropriately to enable the launch of new recreational programming,” said Councilmember Rick Polzin.
During the meeting, City Finance Director Jackie Miller presented a six-year summary of both the REC Center and the Civic Center showing revenues and expenses.
Since 2018, the year before the approximately $16 million facility opened (Jan. 2019), expenses over revenue for all of the Parks & Rec Department narrowed. In 2018, that gap totaled a deficit of $754,448. However, by 2020 it had narrowed to less than half that amount, $214,695.
Breaking it down further and narrowing in on the REC Center, that gap between expenditure and revenue stood at $124,556 in 2018. By 2020 it dropped to just $29,785 for the facility.
Speaking to the EagleHerald, and base on the immutable story revealed by the numbers, Miller characterized the financial and operational progress of the Center.
“Speaking strictly from an accounting standpoint and following the generally accepted accounting principles,” Miller said that operationally, a $29,785 deficit for such still in its early days of operation, does not represent a bad picture. The facility has only been in operation for about two years. And considering the initial setbacks during the construction phase of the Center followed by the pandemic, she emphasized that unforeseen budgetary events sometimes occur.
Polzin also acknowledged that while the first two years of the facility’s operation posed some challenges stemming from construction delays and then COVID, the picture painted by the data falls in line with his expectations.
“There are not any surprises in the financial information presented by (Miller),” Polzin said. “It’s been consistent with what we have seen through the committee meetings and council meetings all the way along.”
Severe weather and flooding issues, followed by the contractor’s incorrect installation of the Center’s specialized weather-resistant panels, an approximate 10-month delay of the REC’s opening ensued as the city worked to correct the issue.
And then COVID-19 gripped the world.
“If you look at the REC Center from a reasonable light, there has been a lot of progress made,” Polzin added. “And I think that (the council and the Finance Committee), moving forward are going to manage (the center) as they would all other assets in the city. We are not going to put an unnecessary burden on the taxpayers. And the people that we have in place at the REC center who manage it are the people that are going to continue to grow the programing and grow the revenue.”
REC CENTER AND TAXES
The REC Center falls under the auspices of the Parks & Recreation Department, which like other city departments, represents a public service subsidized by taxes.
“Recreation is something that is offered to the community—we have a fire department, we have police, we have public works and we have public recreation,” said Dorothy Kowalski, Common Council president. “We don’t expect to break even with those types of things, because they are services to the community.”
Based on city records, for the last two decades, the portion of a resident’s tax bill imposed by the city continues to hold relatively unchanged. The city mill rate (tax rate applied to each $1,000 of property value) stood at about 8.2 in 2000. In 2020 it was approximately 8.5.
“At this point, we have not had to raise taxes to support the REC Center,” Kowalski said, who also serves as the Finance Committee Chair. “And with the way the debt is structured, I don’t expect that we will.”
Maintaining a steady tax rate represents one of the goals toward which the city works. With assistance from a financial advisory and planning group (Ehlers Public Finance Advisors), Marinette’s leadership finds ways to efficiently balance city debt payments, grants, loans and other financial flows of money, which helps maintain a level tax rate.
“Ehler’s has always scheduled our debt based when other payments would be dropping off,” Miller said. “They have always done it so the tax base stays level, rather than (jumping) up and down where you would have a harder time explaining to constituents why their taxes might have dropped one year and went up the next.”
MOVING AHEAD: POST COVID
Establishing an average or expected level also means realizing baseline performance. The financial impacts of the pandemic obliterated any notion of a baseline operation for the REC Center.
“It is tough to make projections forward with COVID,” Kowalski said. “We don’t have a baseline per se in terms of what our income is going to be as we work through this.”
Even without COVID, Genisot explained, after only two years of operation, such a projection remains difficult because of a lack of prior years’ data.
“You can’t compare a five-year average in the past, because if you are going to compare a (past) average then you need to compare to an average on the forward side,” he said. “But (the REC Center) has not been open 5 years.”
Still, the Genisot and others remain confident.
“We came out of it (the pandemic) with a pretty firm standing,” he said. “I think it is a little early and we have not yet realized the true asset we have and the many things that we can do with it. We are just learning of the opportunities we still have and could have … so I think the REC Center is doing well considering a global crisis. And I think there are many more opportunities and programs that we could continue to build on.”