The big screen, flat panel TVs that so recently hung on the walls of the Moose Lake sex offender program will soon be enjoyed by patients at veterans homes across the state.
In a move designed to put an end to an embarrassing episode for a cost-conscious administration, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday that at least 14 of the two dozen sets will go to veterans homes in Minneapolis, Fergus Falls, Hastings and Silver Bay.
Jon Skillingstad, the administrator of the veterans home in Fergus Falls, said the new televisions will be a welcome addition.
"We can easily make use of 50-inch TVs in our lounge and public areas ... where people have a hard time seeing," Skillingstad said. "It's a good addition to our program.
The televisions, nearly $60,000 worth, had been purchased to help occupy the patients at the state's sex offender lockup and provide a possible clinical benefit.
Pawlenty, who described the solution as a "higher and better use for the sets," said that whatever TV sets didn't go to veterans would go to other state agencies or be sold to recoup some of the cost.
"I think [buying the TVs for the Moose Lake facility] was a dumb decision and we're making the best of it," Pawlenty said.
Skillingstad said he was informed yesterday that the Fergus Falls veterans home would get two of the sets. "We're, of course, very grateful to the governor for that," he said.
State officials said the TVs, costing $1,576 apiece, plus $706 mounting brackets, were installed in common areas at a new $45 million treatment facility that opened in July. Dennis Benson, the state sex offender program's executive director, said in an earlier interview that the TVs might offer clinical benefits -- but acknowledged that more than 90 percent of the patients had their own TVs in their rooms.
After the existence of the TVs was reported by the Star Tribune, Pawlenty described the decision to buy them as "boneheaded" and ordered the TVs removed. A spokesman for the governor said Pawlenty believes "those involved should be reprimanded, at a minimum."
State officials said Friday that a search for whomever made the decision to buy the TVs continues. "Benson is in charge of the program and he accepts responsibility for this matter," said Terry Gunderson, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the sex offender program. Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman "has spoken with [Benson] to outline expectations going forward," Gunderson said.
Benson earlier had told the Star Tribune that the decision on what size TVs to buy was made before he became the program's executive director but said he was in charge when the TVs were actually ordered. "I was here the day that the boxes came into the unit," he said.
'Who's running the ship?'
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich said the episode -- and Pawlenty's solution -- are nothing for taxpayers to be happy about. "It really is a matter of, you know, who's running the ship here ... who's making these calls?" Sertich, a DFLer from Chisholm, said in echoing other DFLers who have said the episode showed a continuing lack of oversight by the Pawlenty administration. "It's becoming more of a trend than an anomaly," Sertich said.
Moving the televisions to other state facilities may just be adding to the cost, he said. "Are we just spending more bad money moving these TVs around?" Sertich asked.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division committee, said the episode points to the larger issue of how long Minnesota can sustain an increasingly costly program. The state houses 566 patients in its sex offender program -- a figure expected to nearly double in seven years. While the program's newest treatment facility in Moose Lake just opened in July, officials are already pushing for another new facility, at a cost of $96 million.
"It becomes very expensive," said Berglin, a key legislator on health issues. "It seems to me that we are committing way more people than most other states. In the total number of commitments, we're only slightly behind California or New York, and we have a much smaller [overall] population."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673