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UNF poll: Waters and Burton in close race for sheriff; school tax referendum a cliffhanger

·5 min read
Early voting in Duval County continues through Sunday for next Tuesday's election that will has races for governor, state Legislature, sheriff, two City Council seats, and a property tax referendum for schools on the ballot.
Early voting in Duval County continues through Sunday for next Tuesday's election that will has races for governor, state Legislature, sheriff, two City Council seats, and a property tax referendum for schools on the ballot.

The special election for Jacksonville sheriff is a tight battle between T.K. Waters and Lakesha Burton in a five-candidate field with no one on track to deliver a knock-out punch when polls close Tuesday, according to a University of North Florida poll.

In another countywide election open to all registered voters, a referendum for a property tax increase to help raise teacher salaries at Duval County public schools garnered 51% support and 45% opposition in the UNF poll.

"That is going to be a lot closer than I thought it was going to be," said Michael Binder, faculty director of the UNF Public Opinion Research Lab.

The UNF poll released Wednesday morning has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.9%.

More: Amid teacher vacancy crisis, Duval Schools presses the case for voters to approve tax increase

Sheriff candidates sound off: Biggest challenge, gangs, transparency: Candidates for Jacksonville sheriff provide their take

Election guide: Election 2022: What you need to know about Duval County primaries, candidates, voting

The sheriff's race also is neck and neck, though the UNF polls predicts the outcome Tuesday won't be the final word. If no candidate clears 50%, the top two will square off in November.

The UNF poll found 41% saying they would vote for Waters, who is the only Republican in the race, followed by Burton, a Democrat, at 39% while three other Democrats split the rest of the support.

“If my name isn’t Lakesha Burton, I do not like this poll," Binder said.

He said the poll shows Burton is well-positioned for a runoff election against Waters, but it still will be a tough contest because voters who support Democratic candidates Ken Jefferson, Tony Cummings and Wayne Clark won't necessarily all break in favor of Burton.

The race for sheriff became a special election after Mike Williams left office one year early because he moved to Nassau County in violation of a City Charter requirement for the sheriff to reside in Duval County.

Property tax referendum for schools shows partisan split

The property tax referendum for Duval County public schools also is adding another layer to the Aug. 23 election beyond the usual primary contests for governor and the state Legislature.

The referendum comes two years after Duval County voters overwhelmingly backed a sales tax increase for school construction and technology in November 2020. The proposed property tax increase doesn't have the same momentum, however, and the view of it splits on partisan lines, the UNF poll shows.

Binder said referendums on tax increases generally fare well when the public knows the money will go toward a specific purpose, the tax will benefit children and no organized opposition has formed against it.

Binder said the school district's property tax referendum checks all those boxes. But compared to the sales tax referendum for schools that Duval County voters  approved by a 67% margin in 2020, the property tax referendum hasn't had the same level of high-profile supporters rallying support for it.

Mayor Lenny Curry cut television ads backing the sales tax referendum while a committee aligned with him spent nearly $860,000 for the measure. Another committee, Duval Citizens for Better Schools, raised about $932,000 urging voters to approve the sales tax increase in 2020.

In contrast, Duval Citizens for Better Schools has raised about $255,000 for the property tax referendum this year.

The proposed 1 mill increase, equating to $1 per $1,000 of taxable property value, would go toward raising teacher salaries along with funding for arts and athletics programs in schools countywide.

The UNF poll found 71% of Democrats support the referendum while 63% of Republicans oppose it. Binder said it's "not entirely surprising to see a partisan split" especially since public education has "become so politicized in the last couple years."

Voters resistant to spending big on stadium for Jaguars

Looking ahead to the spring 2023 city elections, the UNF poll found little change in the dynamics of the mayor's race.

Donna Deegan, a Democrat, was favored by 31% and other candidates are grouped together trailing by 20 points or more.

JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis, a Republican who hasn't announced he's running but has raised millions of dollars, is in second at 11%. State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, is in third at 10%, City Council member Al Ferraro is at 8% and council member LeAnna Cumber is at 7%. Ferraro and Cumber are Republicans.

"Donna is way out in front and everybody else is kind of in the starting blocks, and that’s purely name recognition," Binder said.

The poll found widespread opposition to the city of Jacksonville splitting the cost with the Jaguars for a new or improved football stadium. Asked about spending $375 million in public funds for putting a roof on the stadium, 67% were opposed and that rose to 80% when asked about spending up to $850 million in public money for a new stadium.

More: Jaguars want stadium with shade? Look at what Dolphins did in Miami — without tax dollars

The findings largely track results from a UNF poll in February.

The next mayor and City Council who take office in July 2023 will likely face major decisions during their four-year terms about the future of the football stadium. Binder said candidates running in the spring elections will face a "balancing act" in which they could signal support for the Jaguars without committing to a dollar amount for the stadium.

"That’s going to be a really, really tough sell for that public money," he said.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: University of North Florida poll shows close Jacksonville Sheriff race