Idaho to hold hearing on vacant governor's mansion

BOISE, Idaho (AP) The public will get the chance to weigh in on the fate of Idaho's long-empty governor's mansion.

A five-member panel that oversees finances for the water-guzzling, electricity sucking mansion met Tuesday to approve a $177,400 spending plan to cover upkeep of the expansive property during the next fiscal year.

But the 3-2 vote came with a caveat: The panel agreed to hold a public hearing in September to garner input on whether Idaho should dispose of the mansion that was donated to the state by the late french fry billionaire, J.R. Simplot in December 2004.

The Governor's Housing Committee met in Boise to consider the 2013 fiscal year budget for the mansion property after a previous vote held over email in late June was found in violation of Idaho's open meeting law.

Sen. Les Bock, a Democrat on the panel, complained the email vote didn't give the public adequate notice to consider the budget. The committee voted to nullify the previous vote, which was also 3-2, before taking up the budget a second time.

"I recognize the error in this was inadvertent, I'm not suggesting that any of this was intentional," said Bock, who joined Democratic Rep. Phylis King in voting against the spending plan.

Bock worried the unpublicized vote would take the spotlight off the home he wants the state to dispose of, because it's quickly draining its maintenance fund.

The cost of caring for the hilltop mansion which no Idaho governor has ever lived in and watering its expansive lawn have decreased the fund to less than $900,000. That will only cover the bills for the next five years unless something is done.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, Simplot's former son-in-law, has declined to live in the mansion, preferring instead his ranch west of Boise. The state does charge agencies that use the home as an event venue, but that doesn't bring in much cash.

The housing panel has long discussed options for the property.

If Idaho decides to sell the mansion, it must first give Simplot's surviving family the right of first refusal, at market prices. And if the offer is too low, Simplot's family could take back the place, even though Idaho has paid for six years of upkeep and used $310,000 in private donations to pay for renovations.

The housing panel's chairman, Republican Sen. Chuck Winder, proposed the public hearing to discuss the future of the home after a handful of people showed up at the hearing on the governor's mansion budget.

"That's not really the issue. The issue is whether you keep it or you don't keep it," Winder said.