TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) — While the state has been pushing for cut backs, more than $800,000 has been spent for improvements to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee since 2010.
Taxpayers have footed the bill for things like the cleaning of oriental rugs and refinishing the oak flooring at “the People’s House,” a sprawling edifice at 700 North Adams Street that serves as private residence as well as official entertainment venue for the state’s chief executive. Some money, though, has come from lobbyists and corporate donors with business before Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Slightly more than $2.4 million was spent during Jeb Bush’s eight years in office, but that included some post-9/11 security upgrades.
Most of the money spent on the mansion— nearly $600,000 — has come from taxpayers and goes toward upkeep of the grounds and what is called the “public side” of the mansion, which includes the garden and rooms where public receptions are held.
But more than $200,000 spent on both public rooms and on the personal quarters used by the Scott family came from a handful of the state’s most powerful companies. Records from the Governor’s Mansion Foundation show that U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida each donated $100,000.
On top of that came $20,000 gifts from fundraiser and lobbyist Brian Ballard; Scott’s political adviser, Tony Fabrizio; and George Zoley, the CEO of private prison company The GEO Group, which runs two Florida penitentiaries.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, questioned the state spending money on the mansion while it has been pushing cutbacks elsewhere.
“Maybe the first place in government cutbacks is where you are staying at,” said Thurston.
Thurston also said he was surprised to hear about private donations for the mansion and said he doubted anyone in the public was aware of it.
“There’s a real concern there,” said Thurston. “What are they expecting to receive from their contributions?”
Scott, a multi-millionaire who owns a mansion in southwest Florida, did not put any of his own money to the renovation effort, although foundation records show that he and his wife donated furniture, lamps and exercise equipment valued at more than $93,000.
Scott spokeswoman Sellers would not answer questions about whether accepting private money might risk posing a conflict of interest. Her answer in an email was that “mansion foundation members raise money.”
Located 10 blocks north of the Capitol building, the governor’s mansion is hidden from view by aging commercial properties that sit along a Tallahassee main street. Large iron gates block the street in front of the mansion, keeping visitors away. Ballard said he was glad to make his 2011 donation, which came at a time when there were discussions of using the private money to help purchase the commercial property. The idea was to create a kind of “mansion park” that might qualify as a national historical landmark.
“I believe in Tallahassee and I live here,” Ballard said. “I think we should more things to make Tallahassee a special place. Rick Scott certainly doesn’t need money from me. If they asked again, I would do it again. And I would do it if it were for Gov. (Bob) Graham, Gov. (Lawton) Chiles or Gov. Crist.”
The long list of renovations to the governor’s mansion includes a $2,000 mirror for first lady Ann Scott’s bathroom and $38,000 in new rugs. Private money paid for those items. The mansion also boasts new wallpaper, pillows, furniture, drapes, paint, window repairs, new screens for the swimming pool and an upgraded kitchen.
The amount of public money spent on the mansion the last three years exceeds what was spent between 2007 and 2011. State records show nearly $443,000 was spent during Former Governor Charlie Crist’s term, including more than $100,000 to install a fuel cell at the mansion and more than $253,000 on the heating and cooling system.
Slightly more than $2.4 million was spent between 1999 and 2007 when Bush was governor, but that includes nearly $1 million to acquire property near the mansion and to close the street due to security concerns.
Ben Wolf, a spokesman for the Department of Management Services, said improvements paid for by taxpayers were for historical preservation, to improve health and safety and for routine maintenance of the 60-year-old building. For example, Wolf said, the walls and ceilings hadn’t been painted in more than 15 years.
Wolf said that the repairs were undertaken after an assessment by DMS, which manages real estate owned by the state among other functions. The improvements were not done at anyone’s request, Wolf said.
Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for Scott, also said that neither the governor nor the first lady requested any renovations.
But minutes from a May 2011 meeting of the Governor’s Mansion Commission— the state panel that assures the home maintains its original structure and character — show that first lady Ann Scott voiced concern about the home’s condition to state officials.
“It’s important to me to maintain its beauty and showcase its history, making the mansion a welcome destination for all guests,” said the first lady, who had run her own interior design business before her husband was elected and has pushed to make the mansion more available to public events.
Carol Beck, mansion manager and curator, was quoted as telling the group that top DMS officials “have been exceptionally proactive in addressing concerns of the first lady and myself as it relates to the current condition of the interior and exterior of the mansion proper, as well as the grounds.”
Sellers said that Ann Scott has been traveling a lot lately to spend time with her grandchildren and unavailable for questions about the mansion.
Meanwhile, Scott — who just announced he would seek to cut another $100 million in “government waste” next year — is known to be a strong supporter of the costly renovation to The Grove Plantation, the 180-year-old historic home of the late Gov. LeRoy Collins. It sits on a 10-acre site adjoining the governor’s mansion and could be opened to the public as soon as next year.
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