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Unhappy about the economy, Americans are still spending big

Americans might say they’re upset about rising prices and losing confidence in the economy, but that hasn’t stopped them from snapping up cars, electronics, fitness equipment and other big-ticket items.

Retail sales jumped 1.7 percent in October, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday — a significant acceleration from September levels even as new data put consumer confidence at a 10-year low. Walmart and Home Depot clearly benefited from the surge, with both retail behemoths reporting robust third-quarter sales and profits.

The data highlights a unique economic moment where the country is still in the grip of a pandemic, but the coronavirus and fears surrounding it have receded enough for economic activity to maintain a brisk pace. Even so, the composition of spending remains heavily weighted toward goods instead of services in the run-up to the holidays.

And though consumers are grumbling about the rising cost of gas, groceries and other everyday goods, they have so far been willing to accept them, said Mark Cohen, director of retail sales at Columbia Business School.

“The fact is, the world shut down for the better part of 2020 and people have savings because they haven’t been out and about,” he said. “They have a lot of disposable cash — and now that things are coming back to normal, they’re going to dispose of it.”

All told, Americans spent $638.2 billion in October, a 16 percent increase from last year. And while some of that lift is the result of higher prices, economists say there are other factors at play: Families still have savings from more than a year in relative quarantine and have gotten a boost in income from the child tax credit and other policies

But with pandemic-related disruptions still a reality, Americans continue to shift spending away from the service sector to consumer goods — meaning they’re cooking at home instead of dining out and upgrading their TVs and sound systems instead of hitting the movie theater.

Some of the biggest sales increases last month were recorded in areas traditionally driven by holiday gift-buying: Sales at electronics and appliance stores rose 3.8 percent from September, while sporting goods, musical instrument and bookstores notched a 1.5 percent gain. Spending at restaurants and bars, meanwhile, remained flat.

“Consumers are very concerned about inflation, but that has not held back spending,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group. “People have the ability to spend — not only from the savings cushion they built up over the last year and half, but because we’ve added new jobs, which means new income and new spending.”

Halloween merchandise and early holiday buying also boosted sales, he said. Retailers have been encouraging consumers to shop earlier this year, amid fears of shortages and delays caused by supply chain disruptions. Walmart, Target and Amazon all kicked off holiday discounts in October, when jack-o-lantern pails and ghoulish masks were still on shelves. Nearly half of Americans planned to start their holiday shopping before November, according to the National Retail Federation, compared with 39 percent two years ago.

The trade group estimates that overall holiday sales will grow as much as 10.5 percent, to a record $859 billion this year. Consumers, on average, are expected to spend $998 on gifts, food, decorations and other holiday purchases. That figure is largely in line with last year’s spending, but below a pre-pandemic high of $1,047.83 in 2019.

“Underlying volumes remain robust, and consumers are buying way more stuff than they did last year,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of the market research firm GlobalData.

There already are signs that the nation’s largest retailers are seeing those gains. Walmart said Tuesday that U.S. sales climbed 9.2 percent in the most recent quarter as Americans spent more on groceries, clothing and holiday decor with the discount retailer.

“A strong consumer, a degree of inflation, and government stimulus” all contributed to robust sales, Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon said during an earnings call Tuesday. “Fighting inflation is in our DNA.”

At the same time, Americans say they’re increasingly skittish about the economy’s long-term prospects. On Monday, one leading measure of consumer sentiment fell to its lowest level since November 2011.

The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index found Americans are increasingly wary of “an escalating inflation rate and the growing belief … that no effective policies have yet been developed to reduce the damage from surging inflation.” According to the report, 1 in 4 consumers said inflation had eroded their living standards in November, and lower income and older Americans were the hardest hit.

Pandemic-related factory shutdowns, product shortages and rising fuel prices have led to cascading markups for food, clothing, toys and other products. Prices surged 6.2 percent in October compared with a year earlier, marking the largest increase in three decades. Retailers say a dramatic rise in energy costs — including a 50 percent increase in gasoline prices from last year — is making it more expensive to transport goods. As a result, many major brands that had previously absorbed cost increases are now passing them on to shoppers.

“Consumer sentiment is being hit hard by the sharp rise in inflation,” said Matthew Sherwood, global economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit. But “it is not enough to keep households from hitting the stores and gearing up for Christmas.”

Still, analysts say it’s too soon to tell whether the October results will bite into retail spending in November and December, when Americans typically do the bulk of their shopping. Rising prices and shipping delays have left many retailers with less inventory than usual.

“The concern is that rising inflation and souring sentiment could hamper consumer activity later in the year,” Yelena Maleyev, an economist for Grant Thornton, wrote in a note to clients.

Erica Eckes started her holiday shopping in early October and by Halloween had declared herself done for the season.

“Like everyone else, I saw the shipping delays and thought, ‘Better sooner than later,’ ” she said.

Eckes, 24, who recently got a higher-paying job and bought a home in Washington, D.C., says she has more money to spend this year than usual. She splurged on an iPhone for her boyfriend and also bought a Theragun massager, a light-up wreath and an electric toothbrush, as well as books, makeup and skin-care products.

“At this point, I’m done,” said Eckes, who’s the head of sales for a start-up. “I might pick up a few more tchotchkes but no more major purchases.”

In New Hampshire, Biden touts infrastructure law — and Democratic lawmakers

Against the backdrop of a light November snowfall, President Joe Biden on Tuesday touted the role of New Hampshire’s current all-Democratic congressional delegation in passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill that he signed into law Monday.

Less than one year from the 2022 midterm elections and with half of that delegation considered vulnerable, the event illustrated that the electoral calculus in the Granite State could go a long way to determining how Biden’s legislative agenda is shaped in 2023 and beyond.

Flanked by Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen, and Reps. Ann McLane Kuster and Chris Pappas, the president and New Hampshire’s transportation commissioner Victoria Sheehan walked to a lectern set up in front of a structurally deficient bridge that carries Route 175 over the Pemigewasset River.

“The investment is sizable and much-needed, and we at the N.H. Department of Transportation are eager to get to work, advancing projects such as the rehabilitation of the bridge we’re standing on today,” Sheehan said before introducing Biden.

Sheehan was first nominated to lead the state transportation agency by then-Gov. Hassan, and she was renominated by current GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, who announced last week he will not run against Hassan for Senate. Among his reasons, Sununu said at the time, was the lack of impetus in his party for getting things done. Biden’s event provided a rejoinder to that as he sought to boost his party colleagues.

Biden highlighted Hassan first, telling the crowd, “Maggie was a key player in every aspect of this law. She’s led by getting bipartisan support. She made the case for making sure the law delivers high speed Internet everywhere in New Hampshire, which as you know from the pandemic, is badly needed.”

During his remarks Tuesday, Biden also highlighted other provisions, including efforts to deal with the effects of sea level rise, as well as, of course, the upgrades to roads and bridges.

Hassan appeared on CQ Roll Call’s most recent listing of the most vulnerable incumbent senators for 2022, and Pappas is also in jeopardy, in no small part because the GOP-led redistricting effort is aiming to make his seat more Republican.

“Passing this legislation is a critical first step towards restoring our infrastructure, including the 215 bridges and nearly 700 miles of roadway in poor condition in New Hampshire,” Pappas said in a statement afterward. “By rehabilitating our existing infrastructure while also making smart investments in our future, these funds will create jobs, boost our economy, and restore our competitiveness. As these investments are delivered I look forward to continuing to work with our communities to ensure our most pressing projects receive the funding they need.”

Gail Huff Brown, a Republican running for the seat held by Pappas, made the trip to Woodstock to record a video posted to Twitter shortly before the president’s arrival that criticized Biden for making the trip, though not the infrastructure law itself.

“He should be back in Washington dealing with our Americans left behind in Afghanistan,” Huff Bown said. “He should be dealing with our rising inflation, our porous border and the fact that our food prices are going up, up, up. Home heating oil, we’re going to be spending a lot of money this winter.”

A longtime local TV anchor, primarily in the Boston market that includes southern New Hampshire, Huff Brown is married to former Massachusetts Sen. Scott P. Brown, a Republican who was an unsuccessful New Hampshire Senate candidate in 2014 but who later was then-President Donald Trump’s ambassador to New Zealand.

Shaheen defeated Brown when he ran in 2014 and won re-election last year, so she is not on the ballot in 2022, but she also drew significant praise from the president.

“Jeanne, you know, it won’t surprise anyone here that you were the key member of this bipartisan group of senators that negotiated the infrastructure bill. Your calm, common sense, as usual, always leads the way, and I mean that sincerely,” he said.

“Getting this bill over the finish line wasn’t easy and it demanded lawmakers put our heads together and find common ground, but most critically: to trust each other,” Shaheen said in a statement. “And we did.”

In the statement, Shaheen highlighted her work on provisions with two Republican senators with ties to northern New England: Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, who was previously governor of Massachusetts, as well as lead Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

“I personally worked with Senator Collins on negotiations surrounding broadband, an issue that is significant in rural parts of New Hampshire, Maine and other communities across the country. I also worked with Senator Romney to revitalize our water infrastructure and Senator Portman on our energy efficiency provisions, which we’ve long fought to get through Congress,” Shaheen said.

“The bipartisan infrastructure legislation is not only a historic achievement for our country, but also a poignant reminder of how Congress can and should operate.”

The president’s trip to the Granite State kicks off travel across the country by the president, vice president and Cabinet officials to promote the new infrastructure law, according to a White House official. Biden will be in Detroit on Wednesday, with the vice president stopping in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan is already on the road in Louisiana and other top officials have trips planned for infrastructure-related events into the Thanksgiving week.

The administration-wide effort seeks to replicate the kind of stagecraft at work last week during Biden’s stop at the Port of Baltimore and again Tuesday in New Hampshire, demonstrating the tangible benefits of investing in physical infrastructure.

Neil Levesque, the executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Manchester’s St. Anselm College, said both the Baltimore and Woodstock visits showcase a “backdrop that people can see and feel and understand.”

Levesque, whose political resume includes work for former Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., said the decision by Sununu to seek another term as governor rather than challenge Hassan for the Senate does not change the reality of Hassan’s approval ratings, which are well below 50 percent.

The infrastructure bill, and an effective sale of it, could help that.

“The trick here is what tools does the White House have and the Democratic Party have to reverse that?” Levesque said of Hassan’s trajectory.

A presidential visit to tout the bipartisan infrastructure law would surely fit in that category, and the White House appears set to try to repeat the visual scene at venues across the country in the coming days.

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NH Supreme Court hears pension dispute between Keene School District, teachers
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CONCORD — New Hampshire’s top court is set to weigh in on a long-running dispute between the Keene School District and its teachers union over whether the district unlawfully reduced the pensions of retired educators.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in that case, which the district brought earlier this year after a third-party arbitrator found it had violated a collective-bargaining agreement with the union by delaying early-retirement payments.

Some justices were skeptical, though, of arguments offered by Peter C. Phillips, the school district’s Salem-based attorney, that the arbitrator had exceeded his authority by concluding how a state retirement agency should calculate public employees’ pensions. Associate Justice Gary E. Hicks was among those who also challenged Phillips’ claim that because the district had delayed paying the early-retirement stipends for years without complaint, it had become accepted practice.

“What difference does that make if it’s been wrong a hundred times?” Hicks asked.

The pension dispute dates to April 2019, when two Keene School District teachers — Randall Burns and R. Scott Hyde — filed a grievance with the district over its decision to wait until several months after their retirements that July to pay their early-retirement stipends.

The N.H. Retirement System calculates teachers’ pensions by averaging their three highest-earning years. After an employee’s last year of work, any final bonuses or early-retirement incentives must be paid within 120 days to be added to that year’s salary and factored into pension calculations.

By delaying the early-retirement stipends for Burns and Hyde — who taught at the Cheshire Career Center and Keene High School, respectively — until November 2019, after that 120-day window, the duo argues that the district intentionally lowered their lifetime earnings. That cost both men approximately $100 per month for the entirety of their pensions, they’ve said.

The school district, which told Burns and Hyde in late 2018 it was delaying their early-retirement stipends so those earnings wouldn’t incur mandatory NHRS wage deductions, has denied their allegations. In their grievances, however, the former teachers said they feel that decision was instead made to avoid employer-required contributions into the state retirement system.

The district has said in court filings that no teachers who received early-retirement stipends between 2005 and 2018 — including 43 who were paid more than 120 days after their departure — complained about that practice.

District officials and the Keene Education Association asked an arbitrator last year to determine whether the district had violated their collective-bargaining agreement by waiting until November to start the early-retirement payments.

James S. Cooper, a Boston-based arbitrator, ruled in the union’s favor in April 2020, concluding that the district had misapplied the terms of that agreement. In his ruling, which The Sentinel obtained via a public-records request, Cooper said Burns and Hyde should be eligible to petition NHRS for corrected pension earnings.

“The School District was avoiding its contribution and diminishing the retiree’s retirement benefit,” he wrote.

The district subsequently appealed that decision to Cheshire County Superior Court, arguing that Cooper had ruled incorrectly and issued a judgment beyond the scope of its arbitration request. Superior Court Judge David Ruoff rejected those claims last January, however, prompting the district’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

Phillips, the school district’s attorney, said during oral arguments Tuesday that retiring teachers had known since the 1980s how the district handled its early-retirement stipends and had never complained.

“At some point, the district has to be able to rely on how it’s doing things,” he said.

But Esther K. Dickinson, a Concord-based attorney for the teachers union, questioned that logic during the proceedings, which were held in person and also broadcast online. Dickinson said the collective-bargaining agreement with the district clearly states that Burns and Hyde were owed those stipends immediately after they retired — regardless of past practice.

“What’s really truly unfair here is that these retirees, through the district’s conduct, are going to lose out on about $100 a month for the rest of their lives,” she told the justices.

Phillips declined via phone to comment on the school district’s case Tuesday afternoon, citing the pending litigation. A decision from the Supreme Court is not expected for months.

Union President Bill Gillard said Tuesday afternoon that four other teachers given early-retirement stipends since the pension dispute began have filed similar grievances with the district.

And former teachers who also earned those benefits may ask NHRS for corrected pensions if the arbitrator’s decision is upheld, according to Gillard, a math teacher at Keene High School. That may put the district — which could owe employer-mandated contributions on past employees’ revised earnings — on the hook for a large sum, he said.

“It’s difficult to estimate exactly what the financial exposure is,” he said. “… If the district is willing to try and find some technicality [in the arbitration case], there has to be significant financial liability.”

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Lamb reflects on 25-year career as Keene community development director
  • Updated

For Rhett Lamb, city planning has always been about making decisions today with an eye on where they might lead tomorrow.

For years, Lamb, who turns 62 today, used that philosophy to help guide the City of Keene as it navigated a range of changes, from sustainability initiatives to the city’s introduction of roundabouts to pushing for pedestrian and bicyclist infrastructure.

“The things that are most common to everyone are the things that we don’t pay attention to because we think someone else is taking care of it,” he said. “All our water comes from the same places ... our air, who’s paying attention that? What’s our role in both contributing to the problem or contributing to the solution? That’s what it comes down to for me.”

Now, Lamb’s eye toward the future has him looking at retirement. After 25 years as Keene’s community development director, Lamb’s last day is Dec. 3, the city announced this week.

Lamb, a Boston-area native who moved to Keene to start working for the city after a stint working in the construction and mountain sports industries in northern Vermont. Before that, he earned a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning from Tufts University in Massachusetts. He said he was first drawn to the Elm City for an opportunity to work for former Planning Director Peter Ryner, whose work in the areas of green infrastructure, preservation and looking at the impacts of development were in line with Lamb’s own goals.

But unfortunately, he never got the chance, saying that Ryner left his job at the city just weeks before Lamb started. But he did get the opportunity to jump right into the planning director role after it was vacated and continue the work of his predecessor.

In a news release Monday, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon credited Lamb’s forward-thinking approach to planning with many of Keene’s successes during his tenure.

“Rhett brought many skill sets to the city but probably the most important skill has been his ability to think ‘big picture’ and help others to do the same,” she said. “This long range thinking has helped the city get to where we are today and for that we owe Rhett a debt of gratitude.”

Over the years, Lamb and teams of people that have included other city staff and officials, as well as members of the public, have accomplished quite a bit. He said that one of the first things he did when he started working for the city was get involved with efforts to enhance bicycle infrastructure.

Working to provide people with an alternative transportation option that was both better for the environment and for their own health was exciting, Lamb said, adding that the city is still building on that program.

“Ever since then, we’ve been getting grants and getting money and building bike paths for 25 years,” he said, “so that now we have this really amazing system that continues to grow.”

The city is currently working on its latest bike-path project, the Transportation Heritage Trail, which will link the Industrial Heritage Trail, which ends at Eastern Avenue, with the Cheshire Rail Trail near the Swanzey town line, using the Old Stone Bridge off of Route 101, and two other historic bridges.

Lamb also said he’s been active with several other initiatives, including the city’s historic preservation efforts, other transportation changes like the introduction of roundabouts, and a recently finalized project to shift the city’s downtown to a form-based approach to zoning, which focuses more on aesthetic rather than use.

But environmental sustainability and fighting climate change have been at the forefront of Lamb’s focus. From upgrading older wood-burning stoves to reduce particulate matter in the air to championing solar installations at city buildings, Lamb has prioritized cutting down on the city’s carbon footprint.

Like other things he’s worked on, Lamb said much of his environmental and sustainability work in Keene has been driven by city residents who want to see the community be greener. Some of these projects have included taking an inventory of the way the city used its energy and looking for ways to save money and power, such as weatherization programs and making efficiency upgrades to systems throughout Keene’s departments.

More recently, he’s been involved in the city’s formation of a sweeping energy plan that aims for a 100 percent renewable energy supply across the city for electricity by 2030 and for thermal and transportation energy by 2050. A major piece of this, which Lamb has been involved with, is implementing a community power program, which has been approved by the city council and is awaiting the green light from the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

“I think [a community power program] is one of the most significant things the city can do to change its trajectory,” he said, adding that the program also gives people options for purchasing renewable energy without breaking the bank. The program will enable the city to purchase power on behalf of its citizens, giving the city more of a say over how much renewable energy is consumed in Keene.

Dragon said the city will begin its recruitment process to find Lamb’s successor this week. The job description has been updated, she said, so that the next person to fill the community development director role will also be active in the economic development department, which Dragon said has always been the case, but now it will be more defined.

In the meantime, Building and Health Officer John Rogers and Economic Development Director Med Kopczynski will help to fill Lamb’s shoes until a new director is hired.

After his retirement, Lamb plans to head to Cushing, Maine, where he owns property, to “try a new version of life.” He said he’s looking forward to spending some time in the great outdoors and working on his classic cars.

Lamb reflected fondly on his years working for the city. But he emphasized that none of his accomplishments were achieved in a vacuum and credited the passionate residents of the city with enabling much of the progress that has been made during his tenure.

“I just can’t imagine working for a better place,” he said, “not just the city as an entity, but with citizens that care so much about their community. That’s the hallmark here, that people care so much about the City of Keene, and I think they will continue to care. I’ve always appreciated that.”