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 property met Tuesday to approve a $177,400 spending plan that will cover the mansion's upkeep during the next fiscal year. The electricity bill alone is expected to cost around $40,000, while another $80,000 is budgeted for maintenance of the expansive grounds.
The 3-2 vote, however, came with a caveat: The panel agreed to hold a public hearing in September to garner input on whether Idaho should keep, or dispose of, the hilltop mansion that has attracted controversy since it was donated to the state in 2004 by the late french fry billionaire, J.R. Simplot.
The Governor's Housing Committee met in Boise to consider the 2013 fiscal year budget for the 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. On Tuesday, 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 ditch because it's quickly draining its maintenance fund.
The cost of caring for the mansion and watering its expansive lawn has taken its toll on the fund that held more than $1.5 million in 2005. The account has been drained to less than $900,000, which 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 mansion budget.
"That's not really the issue. The issue is whether you keep it or you don't keep it," Winder said.
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