EagleHerald Editor

MARINETTE—Now that the Mudbrook Road home located near the border of the towns of Porterfield and Lake is no longer an option to house a violent sex offender, Marinette County must find a suitable location.

“We just start back from square one,” County Administrator John Lefebvre said Wednesday.

The County Board on Tuesday 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 cost of $115,000.

The county received notice on Feb. 10 that an offender (James M. Harris, age 52) 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.

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.

There is another Chapter 980 home in the county—in the Town of Pound—but it is owned by a private entity. There is no room in that house as the home is at the maximum capacity of two residents. No private entity has stepped forward to lease a home for the sex offender that is being released.

Lefebvre, on Wednesday, said the chance that the county could develop a property is “now pretty much off the table.” He said even if the county was granted a 30-day extension, it would not be enough time to develop a property.

“Where I think we need to concentrate our efforts are is one, find an existing structure or residence that the county could purchase that would be acceptable to the county board,” he said. “I don’t know if there is such a thing, considering whatever neighborhood we located in, those neighbors are going to gather together and do the same thing that the Mudbrook people did. I would be surprised if they didn’t.”

About 100 people from the Mudbrook Road neighborhood attended Tuesday’s board meeting. Sixteen of those residents spoke during public comment against placing a violent sex offender in their neighborhood. Many written letters were received and supervisors were besieged with phone calls, texts and emails.

“The other option is to really shift (our attention to) the potential businessman and investors and people who are looking to make some money,” Lefebvre said, “because DHS (Department of Health Services) pays a fairly good rent. They are a good lessor.”

Lefebvre said he has been looking at structures in the county and has come up empty. He has searched Zillow and the county’s Multiple Listing Service.

“There’s none jumping out at me,” he said of possible homes to purchase.

Lefebvre said it would be advantageous if a private party stepped forward.

“If we can find a private entity that has a home, that meets the requirements, than we as a county don’t have to do anything other than to connect that private entity with DHS,” he said. “So we’re out of it. The County Board doesn’t have to do anything.”

He said the county’s Chapter 980 Committee would just make a recommendation to DHS, which would then work with the property owner. That’s exactly what happened with the residence in Pound.

“DHS reached out to the county and right after they reached out, they said ‘we have a private entity that’s willing to put up these individuals’ and the county was out of it,” Lefebvre said.

If a county can’t find suitable housing, it risks a forfeiture of $500 to $1,000 per day, plus attorney fees, for violating the court order.

The administrator explained that a plan must be submitted to DHS by June 10.

“Understand, it’s not an immediate fine,” he said. “It’s going to take some type of court action by the individual.”

At Tuesday’s meeting both Lefebvre and Mattison spoke of the legal ramifications of violating the court order.

“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.”

Lefebvre said, “That’s what the forfeitures are for—you are violating this individuals rights. You may look at it and say ‘we don’t really care, he’s a convicted felon.’ They still have rights.”

Some supervisors commented Tuesday that they don’t care about the legal issues; they don’t want a violent sex offender on Mudbrook Road.

Now it’s up to the county to find suitable housing, unless a private entity steps forward.