September 26, 2023   

TV News Report Dissects Acuity Brands Private Jet Deal

Despite its splashy headline, WSB-TV's report seems to be more about county governance than a corporate windfall


On Monday, Justin Gray of Atlanta’s WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News team reported on a 9-year-old deal between Acuity Brands and Decide DeKalb Development Authority that shines a light on a corporate jet transaction between North America’s largest lighting company and a development authority for one of the counties where Acuity Brands operates. Decide DeKalb is an economic development authority whose mission it is to attract, expand and retain businesses in DeKalb County, Georgia.

The report, published with the tantalizing headline “Taxpayers in DeKalb County paying for a big company’s multi-million-dollar private jet,“ details how Decide DeKalb struck a deal with Acuity Brands in 2014 to buy the company’s private jet and lease it back to them.


Acuity Brands' Expansion and the 2014 Deal's Intent

According to the written contract, Acuity Brands agreed to make total capital expenditures of approximately $34,600,000 towards an economic development project in DeKalb County. Furthermore, the project was required to generate approximately 250 new permanent employment opportunities in the county. All of this needed to occur before December 31, 2018

At face value, Acuity Brands is seemingly benefiting from a deal that was set up to incentivize the company’s expansion in DeKalb County. In October 2014, Acuity Brands announced that it would retrofit an existing 167,000 square-foot building in Decatur, Georgia, the county seat of DeKalb County, to become its new Engineering and Technology Center. Part of the plan was to relocate approximately 200 software and electrical engineers, technologists and support staff to the new Decatur facility from its location in Conyers, Georgia once construction was completed.

In addition to the relocation of employees from Conyers to DeKalb County, Acuity Brands has also added 600 domestic jobs since the plane deal was struck. In 2014, Acuity Brands employed approximately 7,000 people, of which approximately 3,300 were employed in the United States. As of August 31, 2022, the company reported approximately 13,200 employees of which approximately 3,900 were employed in the United States. The company’s 10-K report does not break down employee counts by state or county.


County Oversight Concerns

A significant concern outlined in the WSB-TV report is the lack of consistent oversight by the DeKalb County Development Authority. Without regular and systematic tracking, it becomes challenging to ensure accountability and to evaluate the true return on investment for taxpayers. The differences in reporting requirements between DeKalb and other counties highlight this oversight issue.


Statement from Acuity Brands

Even without strict oversight, Acuity Brands reports that it has upheld its contractual duties. A company spokesperson shared with us, “The primary purpose of the program with Decide Dekalb was to encourage investment in Dekalb county and create jobs. We are proud to have remained as an employer in DeKalb County for decades, and we invested and grew our facilities there and created hundreds of new jobs in DeKalb since the tax incentive program began. Taxpayers have not paid for the purchase or operation of the company airplane.”


Comparative Practices in Other States and Counties

Jet deals with development authorities are seemingly common practice. DeKalb County is not alone in these practices. According to the report, another similar deal involves Tyler Perry, a Georgia entertainment mogul. Cobb County offered Perry a $1.8 million tax break and refinanced his $35 million jet. Despite the eye-opening nature of these deals, some argue they're necessary for competitive advantage, pointing out that other states like North Carolina, Florida and Texas offer similar incentives.


Despite the splashy headline, this report seems to be more about county governance than a corporate windfall. While Acuity Brands seems to be upholding its end of the deal, the primary issue appears to be the lack of oversight and consistent tracking by the DeKalb County Development Authority. The deal itself, like many economic incentives, falls into a gray area; while it may lead to desired outcomes like job creation, it also poses questions about what types of incentives local governments or development authorities should offer to large corporations.