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Originally published July 11, 2012 at 8:21 PM | Page modified July 12, 2012 at 10:58 AM

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Texas spends $25 million rebuilding mansion as Gov. Perry seeks cuts

Texas Gov. 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.

Bloomberg News

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AUSTIN — Texas Gov. 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 shortchanged schools 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 limits on spending a central theme of his years at the helm of the second most populous U.S. state, and stressed fiscal restraint as a national candidate. While Texas revenue is 14 percent above last year, the governor has asked agencies not to seek bigger budgets and to show how 10 percent cuts would affect operations. This week, Perry refused to expand Medicaid to serve more low-income residents.

"I find it interesting that a state that can't provide children's health care or taking care of the poor can always find an unexpected $25 million laying 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.

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.

Perry spokeswoman Steffany Duke 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.

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

During negotiations to set the two-year budget through August 2013, Perry pressed lawmakers for deeper spending cuts and limits on using reserve funds to bridge a deficit projected to be at least $15 billion. The final spending plan called for $5 billion less for schools than had been mandated, based on previous funding and student population.

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-high 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-out roof.

"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 house sits in an area 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 of President John F. Kennedy in which then-Gov. 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.

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

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