BOISE — Idaho plans to resume paying a $4,500 monthly governor's housing stipend to C.L. "Butch" Otter starting June 1, as it clears out furniture from the vacant governor's mansion in Boise where he never lived in preparation for returning the home to J.R. Simplot's family.
The state decided earlier this year to give the hilltop mansion back to the descendants of Simplot, the billionaire potato mogul who donated the 7,400-square-foot home to be used as a residence for Idaho's chief executive in 2004, four years before he died at age 99. Simplot built his agricultural empire, in part, on french fry sales to McDonald's.
Otter, Simplot's former son-in-law, declined to live in it, however, and escalating costs of about $180,000 annually to water the expansive lawn and maintain the 33-year-old home threatened to quickly drain what had once been a $1.5 million fund to cover housing expenses for the state's chief executive. It's dwindled to just $775,000, as maintenance, electricity and repair costs added up.
The decision to restore the housing stipend to 2009 levels — it was discontinued after the house was ready to live in following renovations — was unanimous among the Republican and Democratic members of the Governor's Housing Committee. The panel concluded the $54,000 annual cost was a relative bargain, compared to keeping the home.
"It's a lot cheaper than $179,000," said Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, adding future governors may not be from the Boise area and could require support beyond their salary to maintain a second residence and entertain official guests, as Otter does now at his ranch west of Boise.
"We can't say that the governor is always going to be well off enough to afford" a home without a stipend, King added. "This way, they can afford to buy whatever they want."
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise and the Governor's Housing Committee chairman, said the push to return the mansion before the end of fiscal year 2013 on June 30 is proceeding as planned.
Otter and his wife, Lori Otter, still must remove some personal items by June 1, the home's decommissioning date.
In addition, inventory is being taken of state-owned furniture including tables, chairs, beds and other household items in preparation for them to be moved, possibly to other state facilities that could use them.
"There are also some items that will be stored until we find out what to do with them," Winder said. "That's something the Department of Administration is working on."
Idaho's state china, for instance, will go to Otter's ranch, likely for the duration of his term in office.
He's up for re-election in 2014, and says he plans to run for a third term.
Idaho has also received necessary documents from the Simplot family to facilitate the transfer, Winder said.
Through a spokesman, the Simplot family has declined to say what it plans to do with the property once it's back in private hands.
"The gift was very generous, but it just didn't fit into the plans of Idaho governors," Winder said.