In the wake of last week's controversy over a surprise tax abatement deal for Acuity Brands, the Conyers Rockdale Economic Development Council on Nov. 11 agreed to create guidelines for how corporate incentive packages are approved. That especially means keeping all key government agencies in the loop.
"We should set the policy and process...The dog should be wagging the tail," said Rick Simons, a board member of both CREDC and the county Development Authority that rejected the Acuity deal. Several other CREDC members-including its chairman, Conyers Mayor Randy Mills-echoed that point.
"I can see where y'all are coming from, and you're right," said CREDC Executive Director Marty Jones. He noted that big development deals in Rockdale always have been done with some secrecy, and government "filling in" the details later. "If it needs to change, I don't have any problem [with] any which way you want to do it," he said.
CREDC will meet sometime next month to craft the new guidelines and process.
Last month, the lighting manufacturer Acuity announced major job-creating expansions at its facilities on Lester Road in Conyers and in DeKalb County. The state economic development agency brokered the expansion deal, which includes tax abatements, in August. Some local officials were involved in the deal, including Jones, Mills and county Chairman Richard Oden, but they all signed confidentiality agreements that prevented them from informing even their fellow officials.
But the Development Authority-the local agency that has actual abatement-creating powers-wasn't aware at all, and rejected the deal on Nov. 4 as a hardship on taxpayers.
Jones told CREDC the deal was a unique situation-the first state-brokered economic development deal in the county since CREDC's creation a decade ago. The state required extraordinary secrecy and even "tried to not let us know who [the corporation involved] was," he said.
But there have been long-simmering tensions within CREDC's board about secrecy and quantifiable results. In his year at CREDC's helm, Jones has pulled back from discussing potential deals even under vague code names, because corporations want maximum secrecy to give them a negotiating edge. Meanwhile, CREDC board member Roland Vaughn, who is also a Development Authority member, has unsuccessfully pushed for stricter standards on what types of developments CREDC pursues and how their economic impacts are measured.
At the Nov. 11 CREDC meeting, Vaughn said he understands that business deals involve some secrecy. But, he noted, secrecy is also partly a strategy to get concessions-such as tax abatements-from local government with minimum public pushback. CREDC's board needs a more active role in shaping deals, he said.
"I don't need a meeting a month to just sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,'" Vaughn said.
Mills said a recent similar deal-an expansion by the company HillPhoenix-had a similar issue of a government entity being left out of the loop. He said "lack of communication" is an issue and that no government authority should find out about a deal only at the last minute when "there's a gun to our head."
CREDC Vice Chairman and county Commissioner Oz Nesbitt agreed, saying, "Any time we give anybody...complete authority about making a decision on behalf of the community and doing it in secrecy...it's just not going to work."
Exactly what the process and standards will look remains to be seen. Mills said officials have already discussed it as part of the Conyers-Rockdale Leadership Collaborative Study Group, a year-long facilitated discussion about improving city and county government communications.
County Commissioner Janice Van Ness, speaking from the audience, expressed concerns about the transparency of that effort, too. Mills and Thua Barlay, an organizer of the collaborative, assured her that no government decisions are being made during the Collaborative process. But Van Ness said she's concerned it's another case of "the same players making big decisions...I don't agree with it, I have to say."