What should be done about Idaho's empty Gov. mansion?

BOISE, Idaho (AP) Potato mogul J.R. Simplot may be four years dead, but his larger-than-life presence continues to influence debate over the future of the hilltop home he donated in 2004 to be Idaho's gubernatorial mansion.

The Governor's Housing Committee, which oversees the 7,100-square-foot mansion, held its first formal public hearing on the home's fate on Tuesday, to give residents a chance to weigh in.

Ballooning costs to the tune of $177,400 this year alone as well as the still-unoccupied home's posture above Boise's skyline that strikes some as too regal have spurred demands it be jettisoned.

Boise resident Barbara Kemp told the panel that Simplot himself would have seen the place as a financial drain.

"It's inappropriate to continue funding this mansion on the hill," Kemp told the five-member panel, invoking Simplot's legacy as a hard-charging, up-by-the-bootstraps businessman who knew the value of a dollar. "We could take a lesson from him."

Only a half-dozen people testified at the hour-long meeting, and just one of them, Michael Kostanecki of Boise, favored keeping the home.

Kostanecki warned selling it and the famous 30-by-50-foot American flag that flies over the 37-acre property would be a slap in J.R.'s face and a stain on the state of Idaho.

"You can't have Idaho without that flag and without that hill," Kostanecki said. "If we have any pride in the guy who really helped develop the state, we should keep it the way it is."

The five-member housing committee aims to meet again within the month, as it mulls the mansion's future.

Options for the home include keeping it, trying to sell it or returning it to the Simplot family, a touchy subject. Simplot died in 2008 at age 99; his descendants have said they'd prefer the home remain in state hands.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian and chairman of the Governor's Housing Committee, said he'd be in favor of keeping the home, but only if the public is behind it, too.

"All options are on the table," Winder said after the meeting. "To terminate it as a residence, using it as a venue for state events, giving it back to the family."

If Idaho decides to dispose of the mansion, it must first give members of the Simplot family the right of first refusal, at market prices.

And if any purchase offer is $2.1 million or less the appraised value of the house in 2004 the Simplots could take it back, even though Idaho has paid for six years of upkeep and used $310,000 from private donations for extensive renovations to make it fit to house official state visitors or host meetings.

David Cuoio, a spokesman for the family, didn't return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

Almost since taxpayers took ownership of the now-32-year-old home, there's been dispute over just what to do with it.

Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's grand plan to expand and remake the place foundered, as he took a job as U.S. interior secretary and cash contributions to complete the work never materialized.

Then, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who was divorced from Simplot's daughter in 1993, refused to live in the home.

In 2007, somebody used weed killer to burn an obscene image in the bluegrass hillside.

All the while, the bills have been mounting as the cost of caring for the home, watering its expansive lawn and replacing that billowing flag when it becomes weather-tattered have drained a maintenance fund to some $900,000. That's only enough to cover the bills for the next five years or so.

John Gannon, a former Boise legislator running for the House this year as a Democrat, told the panel that Idaho should return to the days when it provided the state's governor with a housing allowance, rather than cling to a mansion that sends the wrong message in times of austerity.

"The 19th-century concept of a governor's mansion just isn't working in the 21st century," Gannon said. "Quite simply, the idea of a governor's mansion is obsolete."