Mayoral candidate Gery Chico is far from a new face on Chicago’s political stage, and he’s playing that up in a recent TV ad that stresses how he chaired Chicago’s public school board and the board of the City Colleges system under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“When I was president of CPS, we turned record deficits into a surplus and we built new neighborhood schools,” Chico says in the spot. “As chairman of the City Colleges, I cut millions in waste and we cut property taxes.”
We recently fact-checked as Mostly True a claim by another mayoral contender, Paul Vallas, that mirrored what Chico is saying about the years he spent as president of the Chicago Board of Education. Vallas was CEO of the city’s schools at the same time Chico headed the school board, so any financial turnaround claimed by one can be claimed by the other.
But Chico’s boast about City Colleges also caught our attention. Cutting millions in spending and slashing property taxes sounded like a tall order, especially given that Chico’s tenure at City Colleges began in 2010 and lasted less than seven months. He quit to run for mayor in the 2011 city elections, which he lost to the now-retiring Rahm Emanuel.
Board documents from Chico’s days appear to back up his claim that property taxes and spending were cut under his watch. But those same documents also make clear that savings passed on to individual taxpayers from his property tax cuts were underwhelming and set in motion before Chico took the helm of City Colleges.
Making budget cuts
First, let’s tackle the question of how much Chico saved in budget cuts. “Waste” is a subjective term, so we reached out to Chico’s campaign to ask what he meant by saying he cut “millions” of it.
Spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said the colleges board under Chico eliminated several hundred non-teaching positions, scrapped dozens of unfilled jobs and reined in travel expenses. She pointed to news stories from the time describing the board’s push under Daley to reinvent the system and streamline its services.
A city colleges financial review of the sole budget passed under Chico found staffing costs fell by $4.4 million while another $1.7 million was cut in the line item for travel, supplies and utility expenses.
Reducing the levy — but not by much
In both this ad and others, Chico casts himself as the candidate most likely to give taxpayers a break.
City Colleges did cut its property tax levy under Chico. Still, the breaks Chico oversaw were so modest that it’s doubtful Chicago homeowners noticed them on tax bills.
Context is important in analyzing taxes. The City Colleges’ share of the overall property tax burden in Chicago is tiny. It stood at a little over 3 percent of the tax burden when Chico ran the colleges board, Cook County tax records show. And the cuts he is now boasting about amounted to just a fraction of that 3-plus percent.
Put another way, the tax reductions under Chico shaved about $3 off the 2010 and 2011 tax bills for the owner of a $200,000 Chicago home, according to county tax records. (In the arcane world of Cook County taxes, the 2009 levy was used to calculate bills sent in 2010 and the 2010 levy translated into 2011 bills.)
At the same time the district was reducing its property tax levy it was hiking tuition costs for students, a City Colleges budget document shows. The Civic Federation, a Chicago-based government fiscal watchdog, noted in an analysis of Chico’s budget that the increased tuition still left City Colleges “very competitively priced.” That said, it also meant the system was leaning more on students for revenue while giving a small break to property owners.
It’s also worth noting that the City Colleges budget document explains that the lion’s share of the reductions in the property tax levy implemented under Chico had actually been ordered up by the board in July 2009 — nine months before he joined it.
Chico said, “as chairman of the City Colleges, I cut millions in waste and we cut property taxes.”
He had but a cup of coffee at City Colleges, to borrow a phrase from baseball for a player who served just a short time in the Major Leagues. Spending was cut under Chico, as were taxes. But the savings to the owner of a modest Chicago bungalow amounted to barely enough to buy a real cup of coffee.
What’s more, records make clear that a big portion of the tax cuts he takes credit for were set in motion before he arrived at City Colleges.
Chico’s statement is accurate on its face but leaves out key details and context. We rate it Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
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