Eye On Boise

TUESDAY, OCT. 2, 2012, 3:53 P.M.

Guv’s housing committee opens meeting, will take public testimony…

Governor's Housing Committee meets Tuesday in the state Capitol (Betsy Russell)
Governor's Housing Committee meets Tuesday in the state Capitol (Betsy Russell)

The Governor's Housing Committee has opened its two-hour hearing in the state Capitol, room WW55, on whether or not to keep the former Simplot home atop a green, grassy North Boise hilltop as the state's official governor's residence. There are about 25 people in the audience; the panel does plan to take public testimony during the meeting. First up is a review of the history of Idaho's governor's mansion or lack thereof, which is being delivered in a quiet, subdued voice by a staffer. "Does Idaho need a governor's residence? There are opinions in both directions," he noted. Click below for a report on the issue from AP reporter John Miller.

Public to weigh in on Idaho governor's mansion
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The public gets its first chance Tuesday to formally weigh in on the future of Idaho's governor's mansion, the unoccupied hilltop edifice that rules Boise's skyline but is costing the state hundreds of thousands annually to mow, water and maintain.

The state holds an afternoon hearing starting at 4:30 p.m. in the Idaho Capitol.

The idea is to gauge residents' sentiment about the mansion, donated in 2004 to the state by potato mogul J.R. Simplot.

Options for the home include keeping it, trying to sell it — or returning it to the Simplot family, a touchy subject. Simplot died in 2008 and his descendants have said they'd prefer the home remain in state hands.

Almost since taxpayers took ownership of the 7,500-square-foot home, it's been the subject of dispute over just what to do with it.

Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's grand plan to expand and remake the place foundered, as Kempthorne took a job as U.S. interior secretary and cash contributions to complete the work never materialized.

Then, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who was divorced from Simplot's daughter in 1993, refused to live in the home.

In 2007, somebody used weed killer to burn an obscene image in the bluegrass hillside.

All the while, the bills have been mounting, to the tune of more than $177,400 in the coming year — including to replace the enormous U.S. flag that flies above the mansion and is used by many for orientation.

In fact, the cost of caring for the home, watering its expansive lawn and replacing the billowing flag when it becomes weather-tattered have drained a maintenance fund to less than $900,000— barely enough to cover the bills for the next five years, unless something is done.

Idaho state Rep. Phylis King, a Boise Democrat who is one of five members of the Governor's Housing Committee that oversees the mansion, has been a strong advocate of disposing of the house, on grounds its usefulness is limited and that it will continue to sap public money far into the future.

"I think what we're going to hear is the public thinks it's a waste of money," said King on Tuesday, before the meeting. "All I see is money going down the drain."

Selling the house isn't so simple, however.

If Idaho decides to dispose of the mansion, it must first give members of the Simplot family the right of first refusal, at market prices.

And if any purchase offer is $2.1 million or less — the appraised value of the house in 2004 — the Simplots could take it back, even though Idaho has paid for six years of upkeep and used $310,000 from private donations for extensive renovations to make it fit to house official state visitors or host meetings.

Efforts by Democrats to sell the mansion died in the 2011 Legislature.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian and chairman of the Governor's Housing Committee, didn't immediately return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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