Crime, underserved neighborhoods, stadium renovations: Mayoral candidates wrangle issues important to Jacksonville voters

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With less than two weeks until the mayoral election in Duval County, the seven candidates who will appear on the ballot met Wednesday for a News4JAX debate in partnership with JU’s Public Policy Institute, where they addressed questions aimed at bettering the future of the city.

A total of eight candidates are seeking the office. Incumbent Mayor Lenny Curry is term-limited. (Click image above to watch the full, uncut debate.)

LINK: News4JAX Voter’s Guide

The candidates who will appear on the ballot include (in alphabetical order): Omega Allen (NPA), LeAnna Cumber (R), Daniel Davis (R), Donna Deegan (D), Al Ferraro (R), Audrey Gibson (D), and Frank Keasler, Jr. (R). Not appearing on the ballot is write-in candidate Brian Griffin (NPA).

Stadium renovations at TIAA Bank Field

The first question posed to candidates dealt with TIAA Bank Field, the home of the Jaguars. Recent reports show the Jaguars could be seeking a renovation of the stadium that costs up to $1 billion, and the city could be asked to contribute half that amount. Notably, any stadium deal must be approved by a majority vote at the annual NFL owners meeting.

Candidates were asked, should the issue arise during their term as mayor, would they support that public contribution and how would they fund it? Davis was chosen at random to respond first.

“This is a long-term agreement that we have to talk about,” Davis said. “I’m gonna focus on making sure that there’s open process, that there’s a transparent process, and we will make sure that your voice is heard. I’m telling you that I will work closely, I will negotiate on your behalf as a citizen of Jacksonville to make sure that you have the best deal possible to make sure we have a long relationship with the Jaguars.”

Deegan said the Jaguars are an important part of the city, and she recalled going to UFL football games with the Jacksonville Bulls — and when Jacksonville got an NFL team.

“I think this is a deal that we need to come to somehow, but I think the NFL needs to play a role,” Deegan said. “The Jaguars certainly need to play a role and we’ll find out how much the city needs to play a role as well. But again, this is something that I think is good long-term for the city. We just have to bring in the right negotiators. We can’t just have an open checkbook.”

Ferraro says it’s key that the mayor of Jacksonville is looking out for taxpayers not just in regard to the stadium, but “any big projects.”

“We’ve got to make sure that this works out not just for the Jaguars, but for you,” Ferraro said. " But this goes with all the different projects that are coming forward. So I would want to have an open community where we look at this and we see if it works out for the city. We do want to have them here. It’s obvious that they bring in a lot of income and everything for the city, but it has to work for the community and with the taxpayers.”

Gibson said that as mayor, she would be doing the negotiating and that she believes in a long-term and short-term return on investment for the city.

“Also, I understand that we would need a contract that keeps the Jaguars here for far beyond 2029 in order for us to get that return on our investment,” Gibson said. “The other issue that I’m aware of is home games. I want to make sure that home games don’t end up being in London all the time.”

Keasler spoke of his 30 years doing real estate capital transactions.

“Our contribution to any development be it the stadium, a real estate deal, downtown or someplace else is literally in the capital stack, the trigger that brings the rest of the capital,” Keasler said. “And so if we are that piece of the capital, then we want to be in the waterfall of the capital after everybody’s made a fortune with the Jaguars, then we get our money back.”

Allen agreed that the return on investment is an important factor.

“I can’t say whether I would or would not until I’d have all of the information that tells us whether or not this the community of Jacksonville at large is going to be able to benefit, and if so, how?” Allen said. “My team of legal negotiators would bring us the real raw data. And from there, we will make an informed decision as to what’s best for the city of Jacksonville.”

Cumber said the Jaguars are import for the city and the city’s growth.

“But the people who haven’t been at the negotiating table are the taxpayers,” Cumber said “And so I will make sure that any deal that’s made is best for the taxpayers and the Jaguars have a make a significant monetary commitment to the deal and make a significant commitment to stay in and Jacksonville for the long term.”

None of the candidates spoke favorably of a property tax to pay for it.

Helping underserved neighborhoods

In 2023, there are still Jacksonville neighborhoods that don’t have central sewer, sidewalks, paved and illuminated streets, or even safe drinking water. A News4JAX Insider wrote, “What will you do to relieve systemic poverty in Jacksonville?”

Candidates were asked what they would do to address the longstanding infrastructure challenges. Ferraro said he would consider starting a division under Public Works or JEA.

“So this would be something that would be done over the next couple of decades. It’s not something that’s going to happen over the next couple of years,” Ferraro said. “I would also make sure that we have that it’s uniform.”

Gibson said she believes the city can bundles some of its infrastructure projects.

“I believe also that there are, I know there are federal dollars in the infrastructure bill that we could leverage to match money that we have in the budget for projects as well as draw down state money to be able to mix those funds together,” Gibson said.

Keasler said Jacksonville must acknowledge that over the last 50 years, the Southside and Eastside of Duval County “went from palm trees and palmettos and dairy farms to mega metropolis.”

“Billions of dollars poured into that side of town, and that’s fine. But in the process, we ignored the original part of Jacksonville, and that’s not fine,” Keasler said. “We’ll have the money, but what’s important is that three quarters of our budget comes to us restricted. We need to change the federal and state legislation that gives us the ability to start sustaining capital, if you will, for novel ways to address issues we’ve faced for 50 years.”

Allen said it’s about putting tax dollars to work.

“The first thing I think needs to happen is we take the taxes from a particular area and make those taxes work in that area, retaining that rather than putting them into the general fund, which could become a slush fund and you can distribute it any place that you want,” Allen said. “What I would do would be to draw down state and federal funds that are allocated for for infrastructure to augment the funds that we find through re-budgeting.”

Cumber said she agrees that the city should start leveraging federal and state funds.

“We need to reallocate our funds to potholes, to actually fixing the infrastructure, the lighting and so forth and again, reprogramming the Skyway money,” Cumber said. “Nobody should be happy in the city that the city has decided to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Skyway, but we have all of these systems that need to be addressed.”

Davis started his response by saying that “government can often lose its way.”

“And I think that we have to remember what the true purpose of government is, No. 1: Your government should keep you safe,” Davis said. “Two, your government should spend the dollars on infrastructure. I am going to make the city of Jacksonville’s government smaller so we can get more of your tax dollars back on the street to put more police officers on the street to make sure we fund infrastructure and make sure that we protect our crown jewel the St. Johns River.”

Deegan spoke about when the city was consolidated and said that its time for leaders to look at the city’s infrastructure in the order it has deteriorated.

“Nobody wants to come to a city that’s falling apart, and then we have to move into those neighborhoods that we have neglected for so long — and I agree, we have to bring down federal dollars for that,” Deegan said. “We have millions of dollars, state and federal grant money on the table because we decided some 20 years ago that we just didn’t want that for some political reason. It’s time to get our tax dollars back and to use them for infrastructure that we desperately need.”

Driving down violent crime

There were 163 homicides in Jacksonville last year – the second worst total this century, exceeding 2019s homicides by one.

This is the third mayoral election in a row where crime is a dominant issue for the public.

Candidates were asked: As mayor, what will you do differently to make Jacksonville safe so this doesn’t again come up four years from now as the most important concern for voters?

Gibson said she’d work with the sheriff, and analyze crime data and trends in different neighborhoods.

“It’s very much planned and very much directed,” Gibson said. “Also work with the gang reduction strategy with the state attorney’s office. I believe in prevention as well. So in my talks with the sheriff as we craft his budget, then I would be looking at where we can do prevention and intervention in other places in the budget outside of just the sheriff’s office.”

Keasler said what he’s recommending is a sentinel model and a “21st century net” over the city.

“We spend $2 billion a year funding our police, fire and rescue. We can literally in that same amount of money generate a whole new concept, a college of sentinel science technology operations and procedure.” Keasler said that would support historical disciplines, but also bring in the role of an emergency mental health officer.

Fighting crime, Allen said, is not a mayoral function, but it is a serious mayoral concern.

“I would recommend revisiting the (sheriff’s) budget, making sure that their budget is reallocating ineffective funds to make sure that they can meet the objectives of the of the office. But I think that economic development curtails crime, and I believe that living wage and educated workforces are what we need to help in that arena,” Allen said.

Cumber said ensuring JSO is properly funded is key, as is addressing crime proactively.

“That’s something that I’ve done since I’ve been on city council, I created a nuisance abatement board that allows the city for the very first time ever to hold businesses that are harboring illegal activity accountable,” Cumber said. “And if they don’t, if they refuse to do something to make their businesses better, then we can shut them down. These are the businesses where you’re seeing the gunshots, where you’re seeing the crime.”

Davis said that while on City Council, he led the charge to add 100 new officers to the streets.

“It was a great opportunity for us to drive crime down, and I will re-implement that, and I will add new police officers to the street,” Davis said. “I will make sure that we have City Hall going out into the community to talk to them about what’s happening out there. And I will bring the community into City Hall.”

Deegan told the audience that Jacksonville’s homicide rate per capita is four times that of New York City.

“We have to do something differently than what we’re doing if we’re going to bring that down,” Deegan said. “I am all for adding additional officers. I understand that is what we need. I think that is one way to do this. But I think if we do not get underneath the underlying causes of poverty, the underlying causes of crime, I don’t think that we’re going to bring these numbers down for good.”

Ferraro said with all the development that’s happening, the city has the ability to put 250 more officers on the streets without raising taxes.

“I disagree that the mayor’s office doesn’t have a part in this. The way this has happened is we have crime areas that are happening right now that people are afraid to come and speak up. We need to break the code of silence,” Ferraro said. “I will do the same thing that I’ve done in District 2 and then I’ve gone around doing throughout the city is working on breaking the code of silence.”

Key takeaways from the debate

Kent Justice spoke with Rick Mullaney, the director of JU’s Public Policy Institute and News4JAX’s political analyst, about the debate. In the video below, hear some of Rick’s takeaways.

Background and looking ahead

According to a recent University of North Florida poll of more than 500 registered voters, as many as 22% remained undecided on the mayoral race. With more Republicans (31%) and Independents (24%) undecided than Democrats (13%).

In that same poll, 37% said crime is the most important issue. It’s held the top spot for years.

There was a three-way tie for the second most important issue to the community between education, the economy and housing costs. Other issues voters said were relevant include race relations, improving downtown and transportation.

The general election will be held on March 21. If no candidate gets a majority of the voters in the general election, the top two candidates will advance to a runoff on May 16.

Reporters Scott Johnson, Kent Justice and Jim Piggott contributed to this report.