BOISE – A fund that pays Gov. Butch Otter to live on his ranch west of Boise has been drained by 17 percent since 2005 after Idaho began shelling out thousands of dollars a year to maintain the empty home that the late billionaire J.R. Simplot donated four years ago to be used as a governor’s mansion.
The Governor’s Residence Fund, started with cash from the sale of a previous governor’s home two decades ago, is down to $1.25 million after growing until 2005 to more than $1.5 million.
Previously, investment income covered Otter’s monthly $4,500 housing allowance and left some to spare, helping the fund grow 3 percent between 2002 and 2005. But the drag of the hilltop Simplot home – including more than $100,000 for upkeep and irrigation of the enormous lawn in 2007 – now is putting the fund in jeopardy.
“There are basically three options,” said Sen. Brad Little, chairman of the Governor’s Housing Committee, which includes four lawmakers and Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney. “One, put in more money. Two, save a significant amount on irrigation. And three, do something about the stipend.”
Little, R-Emmett, has pledged not to use the state general fund to shore up the fund.
Simplot gave the $2 million home to the state in 2004 during an event overseen by former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, the chief promoter of turning the residence into a governor’s mansion. Then Kempthorne was appointed U.S. Interior secretary in 2006 and Otter, a millionaire, refused to live in the home of his former father-in-law. He was married to Gay Simplot until 1993.
A state-coordinated effort to collect $3 million in private funds to expand the 7,400-square-foot Simplot home to 12,000 square feet has since stalled. Recently, however, Idaho began using $250,000 of the $475,000 collected so far to buy new flooring and fill the house with furniture and appliances to make it suitable for events or to house official visitors overnight.
Once this renovation is complete, the Governor’s Housing Committee must decide whether to continue paying Otter his monthly stipend or stick to a plan to eliminate it once the Simplot home is habitable.
The state treasurer’s investment manager, Liza Carberry, said the Governor’s Residence Fund is part of a $1.2 billion investment pool overseen by her office.
As the fund’s principal shrinks – as of Wednesday, it had $408,000 in cash and only $846,000 invested – its investment income is also due to decline, meaning continued costs from the Simplot home will sap an even higher percentage of what remains. Since July, expenses have totaled nearly $45,000; revenue from interest was less than $9,000.
Currently, the Department of Administration and the J.R. Simplot Co., which still owns much of the hillside beneath the home in north Boise, are investigating how much it would cost to landscape the property with native plants that wouldn’t require additional irrigation water.
Such a plan would have startup costs – Idaho couldn’t just idle sprinklers that now keep the giant lawn golf-course green even as Boise’s summer temperature tops 100 degrees – but could eventually save as much as $50,000 annually.
“The water deal is a killer,” Little said. “Maintaining that hill is the difference in us staying solvent or not” in the fund.