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Texas Spends $25 Million on Mansion as Perry Seeks Cuts

Texas Governor's Mansion
The Texas Governor's Mansion is shown in this photograph taken in Austin, Texas, before an arson fire damaged the building in 2008. Source: The Office of the Governor of Texas via Bloomberg

Texas Governor Rick Perry is getting set to return to his official residence in downtown Austin after a $25 million rebuilding, even as he asks state agencies to say how they can cut spending 10 percent in the next budget.

Perry, the former Republican presidential candidate who in 2011 signed a two-year plan that reduced school funding by $5 billion, will decamp this month from a rental home to resume life in the high-security governor’s mansion. A June 2008 arson fire destroyed much of the two-story brick home built in 1856.

Perry, 62, has made spending limits a central theme of his years at the helm of the second-most-populous U.S. state, and as a national candidate stressed fiscal restraint.

Texas revenue is 14 percent above last year, including a 12 percent jump in sales taxes and 50 percent increases in oil and gas production levies. Yet the governor has asked agencies not to seek bigger budgets and to show how 10 percent cuts would affect operations. This week, Perry said he opposed expanding Medicaid to serve more poor residents.

“I find it interesting that a state that can’t provide children’s health care or take care of the poor can always find an unexpected $25 million lying around for a favored project,” said Bill Aleshire, a lawyer and former Travis County commissioner in Austin. Lawmakers approved the funding in 2009.

“Of course the mansion needed to be repaired -- I just don’t get the same sense of frugality” that’s applied to state spending for other purposes, said Aleshire, a Democrat.

Longleaf Pine

For their $21.5 million, plus $3.5 million in public donations, taxpayers got inch-thick longleaf pine floors, an added wing and a geothermal heating-and-cooling system that required digging 40 350-foot (107-meter) wells. The cost of restoring the 25-room house would be enough to pay for almost 11 million student lunches at Austin’s high schools.

The spending stands out in an austere state. During negotiations to set the two-year budget through August 2013, Perry pressed lawmakers for deeper cuts and limits on using reserve funds to bridge a deficit projected to be at least $15 billion. The final plan called for $5 billion less for schools than the state’s funding formula mandated.

School’s Out

In Keller, a suburb of Fort Worth, the school district now charges $170 a semester for students to take the bus. The Hutto Independent School District, northeast of Austin, cut 68 positions and temporarily closed an elementary school.

Steffany Duke, a Perry spokeswoman, didn’t respond to questions about the beefed-up security at the home. Those measures led to closing Colorado Street to cars in front of the mansion, raising the height of a brick perimeter wall and adding a guardhouse to screen visitors.

A statement on the governor’s website says that “the integrity of the preservation process, strong collaboration and transparency and a high-quality, cost-efficient restoration are the top priorities” for the group that led the rebuilding. The reopening of its public spaces will add to an area that includes the state Capitol, which attracts 1.5 million visitors a year.

Emptied Building

The project introduced fire sprinklers, access for the handicapped to public spaces and, with the 1,500-square-foot addition, expanded the living quarters in the house that has served 40 governors. Perry and his wife, Anita, moved out of the building in October 2007, to make way for renovations that also relocated the mansion’s historic contents, including furniture, artwork and light fixtures -- sparing them from the blaze that engulfed the structure less than a year later.

In the intervening years, Perry stayed in a 6,400-square-foot, five-bedroom home that rents for $8,500 a month in a gated city neighborhood.

In part, the approximately $2,300 cost per square foot for the restoration resulted from delays in obtaining permits and funding, requiring the construction of a temporary roof and other work to prevent further damage following the 2008 fire. Exterior restoration didn’t begin until October 2010.

The cost also covered tracking down and buying old-growth Bastrop pine to restore the six 29-foot columns adorning the front of the Greek Revival-style house, said Dealey Herndon, the project manager. Workers stripped layers of lead paint from the white brick exterior and replaced the burned roof.

Center-City Citadel

“I had to question every day whether this was a good use of the money,” Herndon said. “The cost of this is very high. Everything that wasn’t original architecture had to go out -- the kitchen equipment, the cabinets, the bathroom tile.”

The fortified house sits in an city known for its waterfront walking trails and crowded entertainment districts. Events such as the annual South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Festivals attract tens of thousands of visitors. South by Southwest drew more than 200,000 people to Austin in March alone.

Security concerns have been reflected at the mansion since at least 1963, following the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy in which then-Governor John Connally was wounded. By 2008, 20 video-surveillance cameras covered the one-block site. Seven were broken on the night when a man in a baseball cap climbed the front fence and threw a firebomb at the colonnaded porch, according to a Texas Public Safety Department report. Just one state trooper was on duty at the residence at the time. The arsonist was never caught.

With its surveillance gear, gates and guards, the house contrasts with much of the neighborhood’s ambiance.

“It’s a shame they had to close Colorado for security,” said Jude Galligan, a real estate agent who lives downtown and sells condominiums in the district where 9,500 people live.

“I hope the mansion doesn’t become too isolated” from the rest of downtown, Galligan said. “The mansion is part of our neighborhood fabric.”

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