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Idaho House (aka the Simplot Mansion)

The bottom line on the house on top of the hill

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Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and his wife have chosen not to live in the 7,200-square-foot Mediterranean-style official residence of the governor. But that doesn't make the bill to maintain the often unoccupied home easy to swallow.

As summer approaches, so does lawncare season. The property's 36 acres of hillside are carpeted by thick Kentucky bluegrass, which sucks up water and electricity--the latter because pumps are needed to push water uphill. It costs about $140,000 per year to maintain the home (officially called Idaho House, but known to some as "Fort Simplot") with much of that money going to the landscaping. The upkeep is paid for out of the Governor's Residence Fund.

The Department of Administration charges $150 per day for meetings of more than 21 people. Groups of 20 or less can use the lower level of the house for four hours for $50. In 2010 the house hosted 22 meetings, and the Department of Agriculture, the Idaho Meth Project and the Liquor Division were among several repeat visitors.

Though the governor and his wife steal-away to the mansion above Boise on occasion, how often isn't clear. The Governor's Office and the State Department of Administration, which coordinates use of the building, said the first couple's comings and goings are not tracked.

"This is considered their residence; they do not need to check in with me or anyone else to use it," wrote Jon Hanian, the governor's spokesman, in an e-mail. "As such, I do not have a 'document or documents' that would keep track of their comings and goings at the Idaho House. They have used the residence both to host events and they have stayed overnight in the home."

Two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a library, two kitchens and a dining room are on the main level. Upstairs is an office, bathroom, entertainment area and ballroom. Huge windows afford a sweeping view of the Treasure Valley.

"[The Otters] have access 24-7," said Jennifer Pike, management assistant with the Department of Administration.

Only the governor can approve requests for use of the home on Fridays or Mondays. The Department of Administration can approve requests for the middle of the week.

Frozen french fry pioneer J.R. Simplot, who died in 2008, gave the $2.8 million house to the state in 2004 for use as the official residence of the governor. The governor at the time, Dirk Kempthorne, eagerly accepted the gift and put together an effort to raise private money to pay for renovations and upkeep.

"It can be a tool for economic development. It can help philanthropically," Kempthorne said at the time. "There's a lot of different uses it can be put to."

Kempthorne vowed to live in the home but was tapped by President George W. Bush to serve as Secretary of the Interior in 2006 and left town before renovations were complete. Kempthorne's replacement, Otter, has no such love for the house. When about $300,000 in renovations wrapped up in 2009, Otter declined to live in the house, choosing instead to stay at his ranch in Star. When criticized for not living in the house, he has responded that he never asked for a mansion.

Otter was married to Simplot's daughter, Gay, for 29 years before they divorced in 1993. He worked for nearly 30 years for the J.R. Simplot Company, starting at a low-level position and rising to the level of executive.

In February, a proposal went before the House State Affairs Committee to sell the Simplot mansion in order to help fund the state parks system. Boise Democratic Rep. Phylis King, who is a member of the five-person Governor's House Committee, said that although she wants to sell the house, she did not support Boise Democratic Rep. Grant Burgoyne's proposal to force a sale by 2012.

"That's their mansion," said King. She added that the Simplots should be contacted before legislators consider selling the property.

Ultimately, a majority of the House State Affairs Committee, including King, voted against even printing the bill. For now, King said she's OK with the governor and first lady using the house to have private parties or to host friends overnight.

In addition to concerns over putting the mansion up for sale in a questionable real estate market, like King, several legislators expressed concern over insulting the Simplot family with the sale of the house.

At the gifting ceremony, Simplot said:

"It's been awful good to me. I love this hill. I built this flag, and I love it. I just think the world of Idaho, and I'm just pleased to let someone have it like the governor. As governors come and go, they'll enjoy it, I hope."

"We just are not wanting to insult the family," said Boise Republican Rep. Max Black. "To that end, I think we need just to move a little bit slower and not make it look like we're dumping it."

The Simplot family offered only a statement regarding their stand on the possibility of the state selling the house:

"J. R.'s home was given to the state with the understanding that it would be used as the governor's house. It's a special piece of property that the Simplot family intended to be used for a special purpose, and being utilized as the official residence of the governor would fulfill that intent. We are satisfied with the agreement we made with the state," read the statement provided by a Simplot spokesman.

So for now, the Idaho House and grounds are available for official state events, cabinet offices and constitutional officers, Tuesday through Thursday. That is, of course, when the Otters aren't there.

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