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Take My Council, Please: The War on Food Additives…


Just say no? (WMP&I and Google images)

SPRINGFIELD—The Community Preservation Committee’s (CPC) recommendations for the coming year constituted much of the City Council agenda on June 10. However, consideration of the projects did not invite the rancor the other items before the Council did. 

A transfer of free cash to reserves veered off-topic and became heated. At the same time, the points that at-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield raised Monday about the American Rescue Plan Act funding were not surprising given her prior advocacy on that subject. By contrast, the sale of a city-owned railroad parcel prompted a barrage of accusations and nonplussed the chamber. 

Councilors Malo Brown, Sean Curran, Brian Santaniello, Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield attended the meeting virtually. 

The CPC’s chair Robert McCarroll discussed Community Preservation Act (CPA) Projects in the latter half of the meeting. Fourteen projects plus authorization for the Committee’s budget next year passed without dissent.  

Last year, the vote on individual CPA projects arrived in August. This year, the CPC set an earlier application deadline. That, in turn, let the CPC present the projects to the Council before the latter’s typical summertime slowdown in July and August. 

The body accepted reports from the Finance Committee and the special committee on Payments-in-Lieu-of-Taxes/New Revenue. 

Comptroller Pat Burns presented the April revenue & expenditure report. As of the end of April, the city had spent 80% of its anticipated budget and collected 87% of expected revenue, Burns said. 

Chris Cignoli

Cignoli’s explains the city’s Dwight Street dreams. (still via Focus Springfield)

Public Works czar Chris Cignoli presented a $1.9 million bond to reconstruct Dwight Street from Lyman Street to State Street. Cignoli said the city received a $9,666,000 match from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s mitigation fund, which will contribute to the project. The work will include paving, bump outs for buses, new trees and sidewalk redesign. A later phase would perform work north to Liberty Street. 

Responding to at-large Councilor Jose Delgado, Burns said the city had $240 million in outstanding bonds with a capacity to carry $627 million. 

The bond passed without dissent. 

Other financial items included an additional $32,500 across budgets. Much of that was $30,000 more to bid advertisements. Chief Administrative & Financial Officer Cathy Buono said the amount transferred last week was incorrect. The other $2,500 was for stipends to the City Council’s staff. The item passed unanimously. 

The body also approved a $470,000 transfer from one Police Department account to another. Buono said that this was to clear a deficit in the extra detail funds. Ostensibly due to quirks in state law, the city must put payments for police details into the general fund. However, the police supervisors contract requires the city to use its account for police details to pay for detail pay. Thus, the fund can fall into deficit. The last time the city fixed it was in fiscal year 2014 at a cost of $328,000. 

Buono asserted that this deficit is on paper as payments for details—plus the city’s 10% surcharge—do come in, minus any detail bills that become uncollectable. The Council approved it without dissent. 

The Council also unanimously transferred $1 million from free cash to the upcoming budget that begins July 1. This was part of the funds Mayor Domenic Sarno had promised at his budget presentation to defray the increase in the property tax levy. 

The rest of the free cash, $4,730,115, appeared on an order that would move it to stabilization reserves. The Council needs to move the money to reserves before the fiscal year ends on June 30 or it will be unavailable until the state certifies it later this year.  

Buono Sarno

Mayor Sarno and CAFO Buono son May 28. They said they were looking in the municipal couch cushions for more money to lower the tax levy. (WMP&I)

Buono said, as she and Sarno had indicated during the Council’s budget vote, that the city could not spend these funds pending resolution of reimbursement requests for damage at Abbey Brook. Sarno has said he would consider moving any unneeded monies into the FY25 budget to reduce the tax levy.  

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied reimbursement. Springfield is pursuing state funds, however. On Friday, Governor Maura Healey announced $5 million in disaster relief for several communities including Springfield, although exact amounts to each community were not listed. 

Buono indicated Monday that she was looking at repurposing unexpended ARPA funding to pay for the Abbey Brooke costs. That could free up cash to pay for, among other things, a lower tax levy. The unexpended ARPA money, however, is not under city control. Rather, she was referring to what the city expects—or hopes—vendors and contractors do not need.  

This led to sharp questions from Councilor Whitfield who said some vendors and contractors had not learned about the chance to extend deadlines. Buono cautioned that her department did not directly oversee ARPA. Therefore, she could not assure every contractor or vender had been briefed about their options. 

To a certain extent, the two women were talking past each other. Buono, presenting a facially unrelated item—the preservation of free cash in reserves before the fiscal year ended—only indicated a strategy on Abbey Brook reimbursement. On the surface, it was not her intent—personally—to pry money from ARPA recipients. Rather, she seemed to suggest what she wanted to do with whatever money that comes. 

Tracye Whitfield

Whitfield in December. As tense as her back & forth with Buono was, Whitfield has been vocal about ARPA implementation in Springfield since it received its funds from the feds. (still via YouTube/Focus Springfield)

On the other hand, Whitfield raised a fair point about how well the city communicated recipients’ options. Moreover, while the city must allocate ARPA funds by year’s end, neither it nor contractors must actually spend funds until the end of 2026. Whitfield claimed that contractors of color had received poor explanations from the city. 

The exchange concluded with Whitfield requesting a list of outstanding recipients. Buono restated that she would need to return to the Council for additional authorization to spend any of the money at issue. 

Before the free cash debate, however, was by far one of the most inflammatory exchanges that have occurred on the Council floor in some time. The Planning & Economic Development Department presented a quitclaim deed for land under a railroad siding off Hendee Street. CSX had owned this land by way of its ancestor the Boston & Albany Railroad. The city took it in tax title. 

The buyer, Astro Chemicals, a purveyor of chemicals for food and pharmaceuticals, wants it, ostensibly to improve rail access. The line connects to CSX’s line through the city. According to Bill Cunningham, the company’s vice-president who attended the June 10 meeting, the company has previously expanded to disused industrial property near Hendee Street. 

Most councilors queried Astro’s representative about its operations and its plans for the property, during which Cunningham laid out the company’s plans. 

Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown asked what chemicals the company makes. Cunningham did not provide an exhaustive list, but said it could include anything from sodium bicarbonate and soda ash to citric acid, the scientific name for vitamin C. He also indicated that water treatment chemicals could be brought in via the railroad spur. 

Malo Brown

Brown, also a candidate for State Senate, dialed his criticism up to an 11. (WMP&I)

“I’ve studied a lot of that stuff. A lot of that stuff is harmful to the human body as far as studies that I’ve, you know, researched,” Brown said. 

Brown asserted that some of these chemicals were illegal in other countries. He did not say which chemicals were illegal or where, however. Nor did Brown name any studies to support his assertion. 

Cunningham said he could not speak for the Food & Drug Administration, though.

“There’re certain chemical products in the world, correct, that are harmful and that we all have read about,” he said. “I can’t say whether these particular products are considered harmful as you know our federal government or the FDA finds them necessary and certifies them as such.” 

Brown’s response was overwrought. 

“I’m 188,000 percenter against what you do and what you manufacture,” he replied. 

Later, he returned to the subject and said that the chemicals put in food cause obesity in communities of color.  

Poorer communities and persons of color generally do face higher rates of disease and obesity. Additives may have a role, but evidence often points to added fats and salts or artificial sweeteners like aspartame and high-fructose corn syrup. Studies have also pointed to emulsifiers. Some preservatives, which could include some of Astro’s products, may have negative impacts.  

Brown did not drop the subject, though. 

“I know in my area drug dealers get locked up. The number one killer in the world isn’t drug dealers in my area, it’s the food industry, obesity and what we put in our food,” he insisted. Growing increasingly agitated, Brown called Astro and similar companies “legal drug dealers.” 

Councilor Walsh called the remark “outrageous,” but Brown only took umbrage at the suggestion. He went on to blast Walsh—whom he often praises in other contexts—as absent from his ward. He repeated his accusations about the chemicals’ impact and legality before debate ended. 

The property transfer passed 10-2. Brown and Whitfield dissented. Ward 5 Councilor Lavar Click-Bruce missed that vote. 

As one of the state’s poorest communities and home to a large, diverse population, Springfield has some extreme health disparities. Rarely was this as obvious as during the pandemic. 



Residents in the Mason Square area, which is in Brown’s ward, have long sought a full-service supermarket. This would make fresh food and vegetables and whole grains more accessible. Still, the most available foods to such areas of the city today are often processed foodstuffs that contribute to bad outcomes. 

However, the subsidization of the agricultural products behind processed foods are at the root of this problem. At a minimum, to the extent that there is a problem with these chemicals, the appropriate redress is at the FDA or public health authorities. Moreover, Astro is already operating adjacent to the property. Blocking a railroad spur would not have shut them down.