The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Business Tue, 06 Dec 2016 09:00:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 McDonald’s revamps $4 billion McCafe brand Tue, 06 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 McDonald’s Corp., losing ground in its battle for the nation’s coffee drinkers, is planning to shake up its McCafe brand – part of a bid to challenge Starbucks Corp. and Dunkin’ Donuts.

The company will reintroduce the McCafe concept next year, about eight years after it debuted nationwide. The push follows efforts to upgrade its java and get more of its beans from sustainable sources, mimicking a move by its Seattle-based rival.

“We’re really excited about the McCafe brand and what it can do to complement our food offerings,” Kristy Cunningham, U.S. senior vice president of strategy and insights, said in an interview. The new McCafe campaign will include special deals, more seasonal beverages and increased marketing of the chain’s coffee rewards program, she said.

Coffee is still a booming business in the U.S., but fast-food companies haven’t been able to capitalize on that growth. Sales at burger chains rose just 3.3 percent last year, compared with an almost 10 percent jump for coffee cafes, according to research firm Technomic. Though McCafe generates $4 billion annually in U.S. sales, it could better cater to customer needs, Cunningham said.

Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have attracted customers with high-margin espresso, lattes and mochas. Though McDonald’s offers a wide range of coffees these days, it hasn’t become as much of a go-to source for upscale drinks.

McCafe is “a very important piece,” Cunningham said. “It gives us the chance to follow what the customer is really looking for.”

Re-emphasizing coffee is critical at a time when food sales are under pressure. Supermarkets have lowered prices, making it more alluring to eat at home instead of at a restaurant. Gas stations and other channels also are increasingly selling prepared meals, adding to the competition.

McDonald’s is looking to build on the success of its all-day breakfast, which rolled out last year across the U.S. It’s also upgrading stores with table service and more touch-screen ordering kiosks. The all-day breakfast push helped fuel a return to growth, but the resurgence has been waning: Domestic comparable sales rose just 1.3 percent last quarter, and McDonald’s is facing declining foot traffic.

McDonald’s isn’t alone in struggling to build a more sophisticated coffee menu. After Burger King introduced 10 new Seattle’s Best drinks in 2013, the rollout fizzled. The company later merged with Tim Hortons, though the two brands remain distinct.

McDonald’s still plans to emphasize its price advantage over Starbucks as it retools the McCafe brand. The company is planning a $1 drip coffee and $2 small specialty-beverage deal for the first quarter of next year, Cunningham said.

The chain, with about 14,000 domestic restaurants, said in October that it would buy all of its coffee from sustainable sources by 2020. In another sign of Starbucks envy, McDonald’s sold pumpkin-spice lattes across all of the U.S. this fall — the first time it’s done so in three years.

The company opened its first stand-alone McCafe location in Toronto last year, a move that it said “showcases the company’s passion for elevating the cafe experience.” McDonald’s now sells Americanos and shots of espresso across its Canadian restaurants. The McCafe locations even bake McCafe pastries in house.

In the U.S., McDonald’s is upgrading its espresso machines with equipment that creates more consistent-tasting drinks, Cunningham said. The new gear, which has better milk-steaming technology and can make a wider variety of drinks, costs about $12,000 apiece.

But the typical McDonald’s diner is a low- to middle-income consumer and not adventurous when it comes to coffee, said Will Slabaugh, analyst at Stephens Inc. Customers are looking for something that’s affordable and familiar, he said.

“It’s going to continue to be a slow build for them, especially in this type of environment where the customer expects a deal,” Slabaugh said. “I don’t expect that to be a huge needle mover for them.”

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Economists see slow growth ahead Tue, 06 Dec 2016 01:35:23 +0000 Americans should get used to a “new normal” of slow economic growth, business economists say.

The median estimate from economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics calls for the American economy to grow 2.2 percent in 2017, up from a forecast 1.6 percent this year and unchanged from the previous survey in September.

The improved number is still lackluster by historical standards. U.S. economic growth averaged 3.1 percent a year from 1948 to 2015, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the business economists say Americans need to get used to slow growth: 80 percent of those surveyed believe the potential growth rate of the American economy will remain at 2.5 percent or lower over the next five years.

The economy has been hobbled by an aging work force and weak gains in productivity.

Still, the economists see the risk of a recession as remote; 90 percent expect the current economic expansion to continue until at least 2018.

They expect employers to add an average 168,000 jobs a month in 2017, down from 180,000 a month so far this year.

Those surveyed also predict the unemployment rate, which fell to a nine-year low 4.6 percent last month, will average 4.7 percent in 2017.

A healthy job market means wage growth is likely to outpace inflation this year and next, the economists say. They see consumer prices rising 2.3 percent next year..

Two-fifths of the economists say increased spending on infrastructure projects would be the best way to boost economic growth over the next four years; 36 percent chose tax reform, which usually includes reducing the high official U.S. corporate tax rate in exchange for closing tax loopholes. President-elect Donald Trump has said both infrastructure spending and tax reform will be priorities in his administration.

The economists expect the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at its meeting next week and to follow up with two more rate hikes next year.

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Amazon to introduce no-checkout grocery store in Seattle Tue, 06 Dec 2016 01:23:42 +0000 Amazon on Monday revealed that it will open a brick-and-mortar grocery store called Amazon Go, an ambitious bid by the once online-only retailer to gobble up more of Americans’ shopping dollars by taking the fight more directly to traditional supermarkets and big-box stores.

The store will be powered by a web of technology that allows customers to fill up their shopping bags and walk out without going through a checkout process, a concept that has long been discussed in the retail industry but that has not been implemented at any major U.S. stores. The idea is that it will shave time off the shopping experience.

Here’s how Amazon Go will work: Customers download an app and then swipe their smartphones as they walk through the store’s entrance. Then they just start picking up groceries. In a process that the company does not describe except to say that it involves such capabilities as computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence, every item the shoppers tuck into their bags or carts is tracked on the phone. If an item is put back on the shelf, it’s deleted. As the shoppers exit, their total bill is calculated, a digital receipt appears on their phones and their Amazon account is charged. A video produced by the company offers some visuals that might help you imagine what that will look like.

The store is set to open in Seattle, Amazon’s hometown, in early 2017. And its arrival could end up posing some critical questions for the wider retail industry. For starters, Amazon Go will probably need fewer workers than traditional stores that rely on cashiers and clerks. If shoppers respond favorably to this low-touch customer service model, it might end up encouraging other chains to give similar setups a try and save labor costs.

If Amazon Go is successful and is expanded widely, it could put serious competitive pressure on a wide range of retailers. For starters, at just 1,800 square feet, Amazon Go looks to be targeting so-called fill-in trips, the kind of quick errand a shopper does when he or she just needs a couple of items. In recent years, drug stores and convenience stores have proved to be potent competitors to supermarkets for these kinds of shopping trips. So a fast-growing Amazon Go could present competition for chains such as CVS and 7-Eleven. And judging from the look of the store as seen in Amazon’s video, it will have an ambiance and selection that will put it up against Kroger or Whole Foods Market.

The company is promising to sell prepared foods made by “on-site chefs,” meaning it will be fighting for the same breakfast, lunch and dinner spending that fast-casual and carryout restaurants currently vie for. Amazon Go also plans to sell pre-packaged meal kits that contain ingredients to make a home-cooked dinner for two. That could produce new competition for the wave of meal kit start-ups such as Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Purple Carrot.

Amazon’s decision to sell groceries in physical stores would seem to be an acknowledgment of how hard it has proven to sell these kinds of goods on the Internet. Despite the explosive growth of e-commerce overall, grocery has largely remained an old-school business, with less than 2 percent of sales taking place online.

And Amazon Go will face no shortage of challenges as it aims to transform the model. Filling up one’s refrigerator has long been a convenience-centric errand, one in which the closest store to your house is often the one that gets your money. It will take a long time – and gobs of money – for Amazon to build out that kind of store network. And it’s not a sure thing that what it calls “Just Walk Out technology” will win customers over. What if it turns out to be buggy? What if some shoppers find it off-putting and impersonal?

Major grocers were likely not shocked by Amazon’s announcement: Rumors have been circulating for months that the company planned to open brick-and-mortar stores that sold food. And the e-commerce company has already shown interest in physical retailing by opening bookstores. So, in theory, legacy chains have been preparing for Amazon to try to encroach on their turf.

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Technology firm rebound, banks lift stock markets Tue, 06 Dec 2016 00:57:23 +0000 NEW YORK — U.S. stocks resumed their climb Monday as investors bought stocks that stand to benefit from economic growth, like banks, as well as technology companies, which have been mostly left out of a post-election rally. The Dow Jones industrial set another record high.

Energy companies rose as the price of oil reached its highest level since July 2015. Small-company stocks continued to outpace the rest of the market. Technology companies have fallen since the election as big names like Facebook and Alphabet have lost ground. But that changed Monday.

Samantha Azzarello, global market strategist for JPMorgan Asset Management, said investors have been steadily moving money away from safe-play stocks over the past year and favoring companies that stand to do the best when economic growth picks up steam, as it did in the third quarter. Azzarello said investors expect that trend to continue.

“We’ve had 2 to 2.5 percent growth in the U.S. and we expect that to pop even higher if we get fiscal stimulus,” she said.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 45.82 points, or 0.2 percent, to 19,216.24. Earlier it went as high as 19,274. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index climbed 12.76 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,204.71. The Nasdaq composite added 53.24 points, or 1 percent, to 5,308.89.

Stocks of small and mid-sized companies rose sharply. The Russell 2000 index jumped 23.53 points, or 1.8 percent, to 1,337.79. Thanks to a big rally in November, the Russell is up 18 percent this year, more than twice as much as the S&P 500, which tracks large U.S. companies. Smaller companies, which are more domestically focused than large multinationals, could stand to benefit more than larger ones from a pickup in U.S. growth.

Banks resumed their post-election rally and are trading at their highest levels since early 2008. Goldman Sachs gained $5.19, or 2.3 percent, to $228.55, a nine-year high. While stocks traded lower overall last week, banks are on a four-week winning streak since the election.

Microsoft added 97 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $60.22. Customer-management software developer climbed $3.43, or 3.5 percent, to $70.80. Tech stocks are down about 1 percent since the election as investors have wondered about the effects of President-elect Donald Trump’s potential trade policies. The stocks had also reached all-time highs earlier this year.

Oil prices rose for the fourth day in a row. The price of oil has surged since OPEC countries finalized a deal that will trim oil production starting in January. Benchmark U.S. oil rose 11 cents to $51.79 per barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 48 cents to $54.94 a barrel in London.

That sent energy companies higher. Valero Energy gained $3.06, or 5 percent, to $64.52 and ConocoPhillips picked up 76 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $48.88.

Consumer-focused companies also did better than the rest of the market. Amazon jumped $19.02, or 2.6 percent, to $759.36. On Monday the online retail giant said it is testing a grocery store model that works without checkout lines.

Health care stocks took the biggest losses. Health insurer UnitedHealth, a Dow component that has soared since the election, shed $3.10, or 1.9 percent, to $157.63 and drugmaker Merck fell 88 cents, or 1.4 percent, to $60.25.

U.S. government bond prices recovered from a sharp drop earlier in the day and finished just a bit lower. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note edged up to 2.40 percent from 2.39 percent late Friday.

Italian voters rejected proposed changes to the nation’s constitution on Sunday, causing political and economic uncertainty for Europe’s fourth-largest economy. Premier Matteo Renzi said he would resign. UniCredit, the biggest bank in Italy, lost 3 percent in Milan. Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the country’s third-biggest lender, slumped 4 percent.

Azzarello, of JPMorgan, said that’s because investors are getting used to political surprises. “After Brexit and after the U.S. election, markets are now braced for expecting the most extreme outcome when it comes to politics,” she said.

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Fate/Grand Order topping Pokemon Go Tue, 06 Dec 2016 00:17:51 +0000 Nintendo Co. might have scored a hit with the explosive debut of Pokemon Go this year. On its home turf, however, Sony Corp. has quietly dispatched its rival with a popular mobile game called Fate/Grand Order.

The game, based on the anime TV series “Fate,” allows players to travel back in time and team up with historical figures like Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci and Joan of Arc to rescue humanity from looming disaster. While the basic version is free to play, people can pay for tokens that make it easier to add characters and speed up gameplay.

Fate/Grand Order has been at or near the top of Japan’s app revenue rankings all year and has been downloaded more than 7 million times since its July 2015 debut. It has made more money than Pokemon Go among Android users 104 out of 133 days this year, and 51 days on iOS devices, in the same period, according to researcher App Annie.

“In terms of the amount of money people are spending, it’s up there above Pokemon Go,” said Damian Thong, an analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in Tokyo. “The intensity and engagement level for Fate/Grand Order is a lot higher.”

When Sony reported its latest quarterly figures last month, Sony Chief Financial Officer Kenichiro Yoshida singled out the game at a press conference, saying “it continues to positively” contribute to the music division, where it’s based. Fate/Grand Order helped to lift Sony Music’s operating profit by 23 percent to 16.5 billion yen. Revenue rose 8 percent to 150 billion yen. The game’s success is a sign of how important Sony’s gaming and entertainment businesses are for Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai, as the company struggles with razor-thin margins and competition in televisions, cameras and other hardware. The company plans to expand its mobile games effort with more titles in more markets in the coming months.

The original Fate television series and more recent game emerged from Sony’s Aniplex studio, created in 1995 to produce anime TV shows and movies. Atsuhiro Iwakami, 44, the studio’s president, said the idea to branch out into gaming was hatched three years ago when he realized the show’s complexity and large cast of characters lent itself well to the mechanics of mobile games.

“Sony Music was quite generous with its budget and said, why don’t you give it a shot,” Iwakami, himself a gamer and former producer on Fate, said in an interview.

Aniplex partnered with game developer DELiGHTWORKS and creative studio Type-Moon to produce Fate/Grand Order. “Whether you look at the number of downloads or users or revenue, it has exceeded our expectations,” Iwakami said.

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Wal-mart adds insurance coverage for transgender workers Tue, 06 Dec 2016 00:06:41 +0000 Wal-Mart Stores Inc. added insurance coverage for transgender workers this year, joining more than 500 companies taking a bigger role in advancing the rights of LGBT employees in a competitive market for labor.

Companies from Apple to Xerox are pushing to protect employee rights and improve gender equality as some legislative efforts have stalled. In 28 states, it’s still legal to fire a person for being gay, and President-elect Donald Trump has said he will rescind President Obama’s executive orders, some of which aim at workplace diversity.

“Corporate America has risen to the top in terms of being a high-impact influencer” on LGBT rights, said Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality project at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “We have corporations going on the record at the federal level, at the judicial level and certainly at the state level speaking out against what we would call anti-LGBT bills.”

The Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index, an annual list that indicates how companies are doing on LGBT-friendly policies, will be released this week. Wal-Mart was among a total of 517 companies, the most ever, that earned a perfect score of 100 points, the group said, up from 407 last year. Wal-Mart, which scored 90 points the last two years, has moved up from 40 points in 2011.

Some companies, including, PayPal Holdings and Dow Chemical, have also started working with LGBT rights advocates on plans to take on expected anti-LGBT legislation at the state level. The group met in San Francisco last month, the companies confirmed, declining further comment on specific states or tactics.

In Texas alone, as many as 50 related bills may be introduced in 2017, said Matthew McTighe, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, who attended the meeting. The Washington D.C.-based organization aims to defeat laws seen as anti-LGBT.

More than 1,000 companies, including Whole Foods Market Inc. and Marriott International Inc. are poised to speak out against Texas laws seen as hostile to LGBT people, said Jessica Shortall, director of the group Texas Competes, which coordinates business response to the laws.

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Unions welcome sale of FairPoint Communications in $1.5 billion merger deal Mon, 05 Dec 2016 19:27:22 +0000 Illinois-based Consolidated Communications plans to purchase FairPoint Communications for $1.5 billion in a proposed merger that has been approved by the boards of directors at each company.

Consolidated Communications, a broadband and business communications company, entered into an agreement to buy the North Carolina-based FairPoint in a deal that is expected to close by next year. Consolidated will assume FairPoint’s debt, reported at about $887 million as of Sept. 30.

Bob Udell, Consolidated’s president and CEO, said Monday that the agreement combines two companies serving 24 states.

FairPoint’s largest network is in northern New England. The company serves over 377,000 voice connections, including residential lines, as well as 325,000 broadband subscribers across the country, according to a presentation for investors.

Leaders of the unions representing FairPoint workers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont said they viewed the sale, which is subject to approval by shareholders and state regulators, with “cautious optimism.”

“It’s clear that the ill-advised sale of (Verizon’s landline business) to FairPoint in 2008 has had a profound negative impact on workers and consumers in Northern New England. Just last month, FairPoint announced another major layoff of nearly 10 percent of its workforce even as regulators continue to investigate their service quality failures,” Peter McLaughlin, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2327 in Maine, said in a written statement Monday.

In an interview Monday afternoon, McLaughlin said members are disappointed with FairPoint and have hoped for a new owner since the Verizon deal. Among other issues, McLaughlin mentioned frustration over delays in service for customers.

“We like being the telephone man, and it hasn’t been that way in recent history,” he said. “We haven’t been good at customer service. When you’re the face of the company, it’s disheartening when you can’t provide a good service to the customer you have to go face-to-face with.”

The Maine Public Utilities Commission has been considering a $500,000 fine against FairPoint for failing to meet minimum service standards for landline customers in 2014 and 2015, and decided last week to expand the investigation to the second quarter of 2016.

FairPoint said last month that it was laying off at least 110 workers, including 35 in Maine, because of a downturn in its traditional telephone service. According to a statement issued Monday by union leaders, those layoffs are expected to go forward as planned.

FairPoint had already laid off 79 line workers and technicians in Maine after a bitter four-month strike that ended in February 2015. Those workers were part of a larger, 260-person layoff across 17 states. About 800 workers in Maine were affected by the 2015 strike.

Don Trementozzi, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1400, also said in a written statement that “our members and our customers have been through the wringer with FairPoint over the last eight years, and our primary concern is that this transaction results in a more stable company that puts a priority on strengthening communities, not enriching Wall Street hedge fund owners.”

Union leaders said they intend to scrutinize Consolidated Communications’ finances, technical capacity and history of labor relations. In particular, they are waiting to hear expert opinions on the company’s financial stability, Trementozzi said in an interview.

“Everybody’s hopeful that anybody but Fairpoint would be better,” he said.

FairPoint provides advanced data, voice and video technologies to businesses and consumers. The telecommunications industry is not regulated in Maine, with the exception of mandated telephone service providers in rural areas.

In 2007, FairPoint bought Verizon’s landline system in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, creating its northern New England division, for $2.3 billion. Less than two years later it filed for bankruptcy protection because of crushing debt, emerging from that process in January 2011.

Paul Sunu, Fairpoint’s CEO, was optimistic that the deal would help the company’s shareholders and customers.

“This transaction offers a number of benefits for FairPoint’s shareholders, including the enhanced scale of the combined company, the opportunity to benefit from the realization of synergies and the receipt of an attractive dividend going forward,” Sunu said in a joint statement released by the two companies. “I am confident the new combined company will accelerate our progress and bring numerous benefits to our customers, employees and shareholders.”

The statement said Udell will serve as president and CEO of the combined company if the deal is approved, and one director from the FairPoint board would join the Consolidated Communications board of directors.

The combined company would retain the Consolidated Communications name and be headquartered in Mattoon, Illinois.


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Wind developer drops plan for 119-turbine wind farm in Aroostook County Mon, 05 Dec 2016 19:21:16 +0000 A 119-turbine wind farm in Aroostook County that would have been the largest in Maine and one of the largest ever planned for New England has withdrawn its application, citing interconnection problems.

EDP Renewables has told the Department of Environmental Protection that it’s not going forward for now with the Number Nine Wind Farm.

The project was proposed three years ago for ridges west of Bridgewater, but needed new transmission lines to connect it with the New England grid. That has taken longer than expected, and last summer, the project lost a power-purchase agreement with utilities in Connecticut. Since then, a proposal to build new transmission lines from northern Maine was rejected during a bidding process in which the three southern New England states were choosing clean-energy projects.

Number Nine Wind Farm would have had an installed capacity of 250 megawatts, which the company said could power 51,400 homes for a year. The project also would have triggered hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in The County.

In a statement Monday, Katie Chapman, the project manager for Number Nine, said the company voluntarily withdrew its DEP application to “refresh the project design” in areas including wildlife and wetland data. She said the project would pursue a new power purchase agreement.

“Number Nine is an excellent project and will benefit from recent improvements in technology including superior performing wind turbines,” Chapman said. “Although the project delays are disappointing, they haven’t lessened our optimism about the site’s prospects to bring clean, affordable energy to New England.”

The withdrawal was welcomed by groups that are fighting development of wind turbines in rural Maine. They celebrated in posts on the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power website.

“Fantastic news! We need to keep pressure on,” wrote Brad Blake of Cape Eizabeth, a frequent blogger on the website.


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New tower kills dead zones for phones in Somerset County Mon, 05 Dec 2016 02:23:25 +0000 HARMONY — The dead zones are gone.

Cellphone users living in and passing through the Somerset County towns of Harmony and Cambridge are now able to place and receive calls ever since a new U.S. Cellular tower went up on Sugar Hill Road in Harmony a couple weeks ago. The tower was erected on leased land about a mile off Route 150 north of Harmony village.

Tracy Morrison at Morrison’s Garage in Harmony village said he isn’t giving up the business landline just yet, but is pleased to finally have cell service. An ancient pay phone still hangs on the wall outside, “inactive” for a good 10-15 years.

“I’m very pleased that we have cell service now, and it’s good coverage,” Morrison said.

Morrison said there were a couple of spots in Harmony where people had to drive to in order to make cellphone calls. One was off Route 150, the Athens Road, by the Hair Shack salon. The other was at a farm on Chadbourne Road.

“Everybody had to go to those two spots to call or it was going to fade on you,” Morrison said.

Morrison said he has had a cellphone, but used it more when he was out of town than when he was in town. He said there has been no cell service for the many visitors to the annual Harmony Labor Day Free Fair and no service for area loggers and truckers.

“Communication is going to be so much better for the area,” he said.

Over at the Cambridge General Store & Restaurant just up the road from Harmony, men having coffee and breakfast on a recent morning had conflicting views about the arrival of cell service.

Larry Brennick and Michael Watson, didn’t see much use for the devices, saying people texting and talking on cellphones is antisocial.

“It’s destroying face-to-face communication,” Watson said.

Others such as Robert Folsom, the fire chief in Cambridge, said cell service is an essential tool when it comes to emergency services in rural Maine, where radio service from the communications center in Skowhegan some 25 miles isn’t always reliable.

“Our radio coverage here from Somerset County has always been spotty at best,” Folsom said.


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Week in review: Portland landlord gets jail time; state seeks new markets for wood Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 REAL ESTATE

Prison term for landlord sends message

Landlords in Greater Portland say a judge’s decision to sentence the owner of an apartment building to three months in prison for a building code violation is a wake-up call for those who manage or own rental property. Justice Thomas Warren sentenced Portland landlord Gregory Nisbet on the misdemeanor charge in Superior Court on Thursday. Warren could have imposed the maximum sentence of six months, but opted for 90 days in jail and the maximum fine of $1,000. In October, Nisbet was acquitted of manslaughter charges stemming from a deadly 2014 fire at the building on Noyes Street that killed six people. The code violation stemmed from having a window on the third floor that was too small to qualify as an emergency escape route. The president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association said putting a landlord in jail has sent “shock waves” throughout the landlord community. Read the story.

Former Maine developer on hot seat with SEC

Federal securities officials want former Portland developer Michael A. Liberty to pay all of a nearly $6 million fine that he accepted in a settlement, six years after he said he was too deeply in debt to shell out the full amount. Liberty, who pleaded guilty Monday in a separate Maine case to making illegal campaign contributions, is challenging the Securities and Exchange Commission’s demand that he pay the remaining $5.4 million of the fine for allegedly defrauding investors, including three government pension funds. He had previously paid $600,000 after convincing a court that he was unable to pay all of it. Liberty, who grew up in Gray and now lives in Florida, agreed to settle the SEC allegations in 2010 without admitting or denying guilt. The SEC said Liberty improperly diverted more than $9 million of a $100 million venture capital fund established by Liberty to himself or associates, including $4.5 million for his personal benefit. The fund also lost $18 million in failed investments that the SEC said were improperly directed by Liberty. Read the story.


State seeks rainmaker to find new markets for wood

The LePage administration is seeking help to “stem the slide of Maine’s forest products industry” and identify additional wood markets following mill closures and other events that have rocked the state’s forest-based economy. The Maine Forest Service plans to hire a temporary “point person” – or a firm – to find ways to strengthen and expand a key part of the state’s economy that the agency says is “at a critical turning point.” The closure of five Maine paper mills in two years, global competition and shrinking demand for so-called biomass products have, for the first time in three decades, left some woodland owners without a market. The envisioned contractor position – advertised in a “request for proposals” released last week – is one of several efforts underway at the state, federal and industry level to help a sector that not long ago was the largest economic engine in Maine. It is unclear how those efforts will mesh together, however. Read the story.


Car dealership wins case against Ford

A Bangor Ford dealership might be able to recover millions of dollars in damages from the car manufacturer under a ruling issued this week by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The damages are mainly attributable to Ford Motor Co.’s failure to send a certified letter that likely would have cost less than $10. Darling’s, the dealership, sued Ford a decade ago, arguing that the car company failed to provide proper notice of a change in a sales incentive program. The Supreme Court this week said that a lower court was wrong to limit the damages to a nine-month period in 2005 and said instead that Darling’s should be entitled to damages from the time the program was changed in 2005 to the present day. For the nine-month period in 2005 alone, the lower court said Darling’s was due damages of nearly $155,000. Now there’s potential for millions in damages, covering sales for more than 10 years, although the lawyer for Darling’s refused to speculate on the amount. Read the story.


Electric supply rates to increase in southern Maine

In an unexpected turn, thousands of electricity customers in southern Maine will see a slight increase in the supply portion of their monthly bills following action Wednesday by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The PUC approved an increase in the state’s default rate for electricity supply to homes in Central Maine Power’s service area, starting in January. After reviewing multiple bids from power providers, the commission voted to accept offers from two companies that will result in the standard offer supply rate rising by 3.5 percent, to nearly 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour. For a typical home that uses 550 kilowatt hours a month, the cost of buying electricity will increase by $1.36, to $36.80. Small businesses received the same rate as homeowners. Mid-size businesses that use the standard offer will see their rates fall by 1.3 percent on an annual average. The increase for small customers in CMP’s service area runs counter to market trends, which were reflected in the PUC’s bid selection Tuesday in Emera-Maine’s Bangor service area, where rates declined slightly. Read the story.


DoD funding includes provision for US-made sneakers

The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes a requirement that the Department of Defense provide military recruits with American-made shoes, a provision long sought by footwear manufacturer New Balance, which employs 900 in Maine. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation had championed the change and announced its presence in the authorization act Wednesday. The provision could lead to a military contract for New Balance, which operates Maine manufacturing plants in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway. The provision is expected to be approved soon by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and implemented over the next two years. Read the story.


PUC expands inquiry into FairPoint

State utility regulators are expanding an investigation of FairPoint Communications for failing to meet minimum service standards for landline customers. The Maine Public Utilities Commission has been considering a $500,000 fine against FairPoint for failing to meet standards in 2014 and 2015. FairPoint had asked regulators not to open an investigation into standards that it failed to meet this year and has contended the metrics are unattainable and unnecessary in the fast-evolving telecom industry. Commissioners agreed Tuesday to expand their investigation to the second quarter of 2016. A state law that went into effect last summer set service quality standards that FairPoint calls more reasonable. Read the story.


UNE and Apothecary by Design collaborate on residency program

The University of New England and local pharmaceutical company Apothecary by Design are launching a residency program this spring to train specialty pharmacists. The program will allow pharmacists to learn from real-world experience with “specialty” medications, which typically involve high costs, complex administration and unique handling requirements, according to a joint news release from the two organizations. Specialty pharmacy is the sole focus of Apothecary by Design, a fast-growing segment of the pharmacy industry. The one-year, Portland-based program will provide hands-on management and clinical training around conditions such as infertility, organ transplant, hepatitis C, HIV and rheumatoid arthritis. Read the story.

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Michelle Singletary: Pick your gift cards carefully Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 All I want to give or get for Christmas is cash.

And if you’re honest, deep down, that’s what you’re thinking when someone asks you what you want.

“Please, just give me the money so I can buy what I really want – or need,” you’d like to say. “Or pay a bill.”

But that isn’t polite or politically correct for Christmas.

Yes, I know there are those of you out there whose love language is giving. This is your holiday of choice. You love to shop in search of just the right gift. It’s your calling. You’re on the lookout all year for the perfect gift.

It’s the reactions that you get that the rest of us strive – but fail miserably – to achieve. For you, it goes like this: The person opens your gift and there is an immediate shriek of delight. It’s just want she wanted. It’s the right size. It’s the right color. Or it’s meaningful. You get a tight hug that lasts long because the gratitude is greater.

The pressure and expectations that you perfect-gifting people create make it hard for the rest of us. It’s why we untalented gift-givers end up buying ugly sweaters, singing-fish wall plaques and Chia pets. If we can’t get it right at least we can make the person laugh.

Or we just give up and grab what’s on sale. We slog through stores with our shoulders slumped hoping – praying – something will jump out and be the right gift.

When we give gifts, this is how it goes: The person opens the present and there isn’t a squeal of joy. For a fleeting moment – because he or she was raised right and was taught to be grateful no matter what – we see disappointment on the receiver’s face. We didn’t get the right size. We chose a hideous color. We get an inauthentic, “This is nice.” In the most egregious breaks with etiquette, we are immediately asked for the return receipt. Our hug is a light back tap.

It is we bad gift-givers who have contributed considerably to the billion-dollar trend in Christmas gifts: the gift card.

Second only to clothing, the National Retail Federation found that 56 percent of shoppers said they will give gift card. Spending on them is expected to reach $27.5 billion this year.

Nearly 93 percent of American consumers said that they have either given or sent a gift card, according to Gift Card Granny, an online exchange site created for people trying to get some value out of unwanted or partially used cards.

We terrible givers aren’t even getting the right cards., an online student loan marketplace, decided this year to do some analytical research to come up with a list of cards people don’t want and those that they do.

The site looked at 101 of the most popular gift cards on the market, ranking them based on five factors – how often they were searched on Google, if there are buyer discounts, average resale value, satisfaction with the card and whether there’s free shipping.

From bottom up, here are the six lowest ranking gift cards:







And the five highest-ranking gift cards of 2016:






“We wanted to come up with gift cards that the receiver will actually like or sell for a good amount of money,” said Nate Matherson, co-founder and chief executive of

We are told that gift cards make giving easy. That’s not necessarily true. A gift card can become a burden.

You may be relegating someone to eat at a restaurant they don’t fancy or shop at a retailer that doesn’t appeal to them. Or you might just be throwing money away.

I’m a gift-card hoarder. To honor the person’s thoughtfulness, I don’t want to use the card any old time. Let’s say I get a Target gift card. I don’t want to buy toilet paper or other household items I might need. Instead, I hold onto it until there’s something special I want.

Gift cards aren’t so great when you think about this: Almost two-thirds of receivers spend an extra 38 percent beyond the value of the card, according to Gift Card Granny. Close to $1 billion went unredeemed in gift cards last year, according to CEBTowerGroup, an insight and technology company.

These last statistics back me up. For those of us who are not perfect-gift givers, maybe our money would be better spent if we just give people cash. Bet then we’ll get better hugs.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

Twitter: SingletaryM

]]> 0 Fri, 02 Dec 2016 17:41:56 +0000
Declining bankruptcy filings in Maine reveal mixed messages Sat, 03 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Personal bankruptcy filings in Maine have been declining steadily since 2010, but attorneys and consumer advocates say the drop-off in bankruptcies isn’t necessarily good news.

In fact, it might be an indicator that Mainers’ financial situations have worsened overall, they said, a reflection of increasingly squeezed households that can’t afford to file for bankruptcy, or people who have serious student debt that isn’t resolved through filing.

Maine bankruptcy filings reached their most recent peak of about 4,200 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maine. Since then, bankruptcies in the state have declined steadily each year to fewer than 1,900 in 2015. As of Oct. 31, just over 1,300 Maine bankruptcies had been filed in 2016. The pattern mirrors a national trend of declining bankruptcy filings, which have been falling between 10 percent and 13 percent year-over-year since the 2010 peak.

Bankruptcy specialists in Maine agree that there is no simple explanation for the sharp drop-off in filings. Although low unemployment and more people with health insurance are likely factors, the decline in filings is not just a matter of post-recession economic recovery, they said.

“Historically, when the economy is improving, people tend to file for bankruptcy more rapidly,” said Peter Fessenden, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s Standing Chapter 13 Trustee in Maine.

A 2006 study by the U.S. Federal Reserve of St. Louis bears this out. It found that bankruptcies can increase during periods of economic growth “as people become more confident in the future and are willing to take on a greater debt burden and finance their increasing obligations based on current income.”

So what’s different about this economic recovery that has caused bankruptcies to decrease so significantly? There are no concrete answers, only theories.


Before attempting to understand the current decline in filings, it’s important to understand why people file for bankruptcy.

In the vast majority of cases, the road to bankruptcy is triggered by an event that dramatically changes the filer’s financial situation for the worse. The Federal Reserve refers to it as an “unexpected insolvency event.” Such events can include divorce, job loss, the death of a spouse, or a major medical expense that is not covered by insurance.

Still, most people don’t just run straight to their nearest bankruptcy court when such an event occurs. Usually, they try to weather the new financial situation for an extended period before ultimately turning to bankruptcy out of frustration, despair or anxiety.

“People file for bankruptcy because they can’t take it anymore,” Fessenden said.

The Federal Reserve found that the typical person who files for bankruptcy is a “blue-collar, high school graduate who heads a lower middle-income class household and who makes heavy use of credit.” In other words, a person who is in a financial position to obtain credit, but not in a financial position to overcome an unexpected insolvency event.

Job loss is of particular concern to Fessenden, an attorney whose job is to assist debtors in Maine and their attorneys with compliance and other issues when they file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy involves putting the debtor on a three- to five-year plan to reorganize their debt and pay off priority creditors. It differs from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which the debtor liquidates all nonessential assets to pay off priority creditors but does not engage in a reorganization plan.

Fessenden said that in an age when finding a new job often involves relocating, many Mainers can’t afford to sell their homes and move because they are locked into mortgages that exceed the value of their homes. Home prices have been slow to recover from the recession: October’s median home sale price of $192,500 was still below the 2006 median of $192,519. Fessenden refers to such homes as “zombie properties.”

The only option for residents of zombie properties may be to declare bankruptcy if their financial situation becomes too dire, he said.

“There’s going to be this wave of Chapter 7 filings,” Fessenden predicted.


Another factor contributing to low bankruptcy filings is likely the expense. People who are struggling financially simply can’t afford the costs associated with it, said John Rao, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, noting that a lot of people probably should be filing for bankruptcy, but aren’t.

In 2005, Congress passed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which is designed to make it more difficult for consumers to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Chapter 7 is by far the most common form of personal bankruptcy in Maine and nationwide.

“As a result of the 2005 amendment, costs increased dramatically,” said Lois R. Lupica, Maine Law Foundation professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law. “There was a whole swath of the population that couldn’t afford to file.”

Fessenden said Maine is one of the most expensive states in which to file for bankruptcy, and the legal costs can climb as high as $8,000 for a typical case.

Bankruptcy attorney James Molleur of Molleur Law Office in Augusta said he doesn’t believe that filing bankruptcy in Maine is particularly more expensive than in other states, but he agreed that many Mainers can’t afford to file since the 2005 law made the legal process far more complex.

“People are so financially strapped that it’s a question of whether they buy groceries, or pay the rent, or file for bankruptcy,” he said.

Molleur acknowledged that bankruptcy carries a social stigma, and that it is important for people to honor their debts whenever possible. Still, he said, bankruptcy is a necessary “release valve” for those with no foreseeable means of repaying what they owe.

Molleur said he is hopeful that with the presidential election of Donald Trump, a businessman who has been involved in several bankruptcies, the stigma will diminish and it will become easier and less expensive to file for bankruptcy.

“I think Trump will be more practical about dealing with debt issues,” he said.

The attorneys said Mainers who are struggling financially because of heavy student loan debt also would be less likely to file, because most student debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.

“It’s possible that bankruptcy just doesn’t offer the remedy that people need,” Lupica said.

Alec Leddy, clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maine, agreed, saying “filings would skyrocket” if the law were changed to allow student debt to be discharged easily through bankruptcy. Mainers who graduate from college have an average debt of nearly $30,000, according to federal data.

“Student debt is way up, but that’s not very helpful, because you can’t get rid of it in bankruptcy,” he said.


A few of the theories to explain the decline in bankruptcies suggest that Mainers’ financial situations have improved in some ways since bankruptcies spiked in 2010.

For one thing, a lot more Mainers have jobs. Leddy noted that the state’s current unemployment rate of 4 percent is about half what it was in 2010, adding that high unemployment correlates directly with increased bankruptcy filings.

“I think the unemployment rate has a lot to do with it,” he said.

Lupica said it’s also possible that fewer Mainers are getting hit with massive hospital bills – a leading reason for bankruptcy filings – because more people have health insurance now under the Affordable Care Act.

Home foreclosures are down considerably from 2010, and lenders are far less inclined to issue personal, mortgage or business loans to those with a relatively high risk of default, the attorneys said.

Fessenden said consumers’ attitudes about borrowing also have changed, to some extent, because of the 2008 financial crisis. “People are comfortable getting into debt, but they’re not comfortable getting into too much debt,” he said. “I think people are still using their credit cards, but I think they are using them less.”

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 23:41:41 +0000
Maine Public looks to raise $3 million for more broadcast equipment, programming Sat, 03 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Maine Public is starting a $3 million public fundraising campaign to enhance the radio and TV network’s equipment and create more local programming.

The effort is the final phase of a $30 million campaign begun in 2013, when the network began “quietly” soliciting major donors and companies for money to help implement it’s long-term strategic plan, said Chief Executive Mark Vogelzang.

That money has already helped Maine Public launch its new Maine Public Classical radio network, which began in May with three stations and a fourth added a few weeks later.

Some of the money was used to buy transmitters for each of the seven Maine Public Radio stations that carry news and information programming, he said.

Reaching the $30 million goal is important because, if reached, a $1.2 million donation from an anonymous person will kick in. The donor pledged a total of $2.4 million, half right away and half when the $30 million is reached.

The money has already helped hire an education reporter for Maine Public Radio and add five people to help produce and research news programming, including the daily “Maine Calling” radio program.

The network, which includes five TV stations and 11 radio stations as well as a website and digital programming, has a total staff of about 80, Vogelzang said. The network was known as Maine Public Broadcasting Network until September, when it changed its name to reflect that much of its content is online.

Vogelzang said he’s asking the public’s help in raising the last of the $30 million to continue to broaden the network’s impact. He said Maine Public has just bought a fifth station for its classical network, which will be heard at 93.7 FM in the Bar Harbor and Ellsworth areas by mid-December.

The Maine Public Television network is creating a new program for high school students, called “Maine’s High School Quiz Show,” which will air in 2017. Already, about50 high schools have expressed interest, Vogelzang said. He hopes the fundraising will help with more new programming.

The $30 million is on top of the annual operating budget of about $12 million. Of that, more than 73 percent comes from membership and community donations, while the rest comes from the state, federal funding and grants.

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Trump assembles team of CEO advisers Sat, 03 Dec 2016 03:22:08 +0000 NEW YORK — President-elect Donald Trump on Friday announced the formation of an advisory group of more than a dozen CEOs and business leaders who will offer input on how to create jobs and speed economic growth.

The President’s Strategic and Policy Forum will hold its first meeting at the White House in the first week of February, shortly after Trump takes office on Jan. 20.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group investment firm, will lead the group.

Trump has vowed to keep manufacturing jobs from leaving the country, and set a goal of growing the economy at 4 percent a year, about twice the average of recent years.

“This forum brings together CEOs and business leaders who know what it takes to create jobs and drive economic growth,” Trump said in a statement. “My administration is committed to drawing on private sector expertise and cutting the government red tape that is holding back our businesses from hiring, innovating, and expanding right here in America.”

The forum will meet “frequently” with the president to offer views on how government policy impacts growth and jobs, according to the statement.

Trump has been reaching into the ranks of big business and Wall Street to fill his Cabinet posts. He has tapped former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary and investment banker Wilbur Ross to head the Commerce Department.

President Obama set up a similar nonpartisan advisory group – the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness – to help shape his economy policies and help create jobs.

Members of Trump’s forum include Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase; Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores; Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM; Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock; and Bob Iger, CEO of Walt Disney.

]]> 0 Sat, 03 Dec 2016 17:25:34 +0000
‘Game of Thrones’ actress lends her voice to save hunted dolphins Sat, 03 Dec 2016 03:21:27 +0000 TOKYO — “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams wants everyone to stop buying tickets to marine shows. She says it’s the best way to stop the capture and killings of dolphins in Japan.

“These animals travel the ocean. That’s what they explore daily. No tank will be big enough. No tank will ever be deep enough, ever be exciting enough,” she said Friday in a Skype call from the small Japanese town of Taiji, whose dolphin hunt was documented in the 2009 Oscar-winning film “The Cove.”

Williams, 19, is the latest celebrity joining the cause to save dolphins. Others include Brian May of Queen, Sting and Daryl Hannah.

She hopes her influence, especially on social media, with 4 million followers on Instagram and 1.5 million on Twitter, will help the cause.

Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer for the “Flipper” TV series, started the protests against the Taiji dolphin kill. He starred in “The Cove,” which depicts a pod of dolphins getting herded into an inlet and bludgeoned to death.

The ones that are killed and sold for meat are left over from the main purpose of the hunt – selling the best-looking ones to aquariums and shows.

The hunters in Taiji and their supporters have repeatedly defended the custom as tradition, although eating dolphins is extremely rare in Japan. The Japanese government also defends whaling as research.

Williams, who is the global ambassador for O’Barry’s Dolphin Project campaign, said that only a handful of Taiji fishermen are benefiting from the practice and many Japanese don’t even know about Taiji.

“It’s not an attack on Japan at all, or on Taiji, or the people of Taiji,” she said. “I want to say, honestly, hand on heart, that this is not an attack on anyone in specific.”

“The Cove,” which was not widely shown in Japan, went online Friday for free viewing limited to Japan, after the Dolphin Project rebought distribution rights.

Williams said she went to the cove earlier in the day, but there was no slaughter.

During her trip, her second time in Japan, she plans to go whale-watching in Mikura Islands, south of Tokyo, where whales are protected and dolphins are often seen swimming in the wild.

“It was something that just struck a chord in my heart. And I’m a firm believer that, if there is something that you really want to stand up and fight for, then you should. And with everyone doing their own little bit for what they believe in, hopefully together we can make the world a better place,” she said of her wish to save dolphins.

Visit The Dolphin Project at:

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 22:26:20 +0000
Chanel says train line threatens production Sat, 03 Dec 2016 03:20:43 +0000 PARIS — Chanel warned Friday that a planned train line through the prized flower fields near the southern French perfume-making area of Grasse will threaten the production of its famous Chanel No. 5 scent.

France’s SNCF rail network plans to build a controversial new high-speed route – and viaduct – to ease traffic congestion between Le Muy and Cannes along the busy French Riviera, one of Europe’s most visited areas.

In a statement, SNCF said the region is home to three of France’s biggest cities and simply “cannot afford to remain isolated in an increasingly interconnected European area.”

But the perfume maker is causing a stink.

Chanel issued a statement Friday arguing that the train plans would compromise the production of their best-known scents.

“The construction of a viaduct and the regular passage of high-speed trains above the flower fields would force Chanel to stop supporting its artisanal activities in the region,” the statement read, referring to Grasse, one of the world’s most famous perfume-making sites.

Chanel No. 5 – created in 1921 and made world-famous by blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe – relies on extracts of “Grasse” jasmine and May rose that are cultivated in and around Grasse. The scent is said to have remained unchanged for decades.

Chanel has been supporting a campaign to put Grasse’s perfume-making area on UNESCO’s protected heritage list, and it successfully lobbied in 2009 to end a project to create a refuse center near the flower gardens in Pegomas and the Siagne Valley.

The luxury fashion house is lobbying French authorities to support an alternative route, using an old goods station in Cannes that’s owned by the SNCF.

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 22:28:32 +0000
Owners of Mount Washington cog railway want to build a big hotel up there Fri, 02 Dec 2016 15:55:44 +0000 CONCORD, N.H. — The owners of a historic cog railway that climbs up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, want to build an upscale hotel a mile from the summit, in keeping with hotels that once graced the mountain in the 1800s, and to accommodate an increasing number of summer tourists.

The 6,288-foot Mount Washington has been attracting more tourists in New Hampshire’s North Country with the loss of the Old Man of the Mountain, a granite profile and state symbol that crumbled in 2003. It draws over 300,000 guests annually.

The railway owners are considering a 35-room hotel with a restaurant on their own land that would withstand the weather extremes of Mount Washington. It would be open from late April through November and hopefully be ready by July 3, 2019, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

The railway runs 3 miles up the west side of the mountain, and became the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world when it was built in 1869.

The owners want to build a 25,000-square-foot hotel at the site of a train siding called Skyline. They would like the train to pass through the building, sheltering patrons from inclement weather.

Mount Washington, photographed at dawn, towers above North Conway, New Hampshire in this 2015 photo.Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Mount Washington, photographed at dawn, towers above North Conway in this 2015 photo. More tourists are visiting the town since another popular New Hampshire attraction, the Old Man in the Mountain, crumbled in 2003. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

“It would be much more upscale than what people are offered up there currently, and would be more in keeping with what was available at the turn of the century,” said Wayne Presby, president of the Mount Washington Railway Company.

During the tourism season, visitors to Mount Washington can stay at Appalachian Mountain Club hut, and at the Mount Washington Observatory, although space is limited at both. Accommodations are somewhat spartan, with bunk beds and cafeteria-style food.

In 1873, the railway built, owned and operated a 91-room hotel known as the Summit House on the summit. It burned down in 1908 and was replaced by a smaller structure several years later. The state bought the property in 1964 and replaced the hotel with a visitor center that was opened in 1980.

The Presby and Bedor families have owned and operated the railway for 34 years. They also owned, operated, and renovated the Mount Washington Hotel and Resort in nearby Bretton Woods. Their latest project, estimated to cost at least several million dollars, would be funded by them.

The families will discuss the proposal at a Dec. 8 meeting of a county planning board. The project will need numerous permits, including for sewer, water and other infrastructure.

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 21:05:38 +0000
Trump voter lost her home to new Treasury nominee’s bank Fri, 02 Dec 2016 15:26:18 +0000 WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump named his nominee for Treasury secretary, Teena Colebrook felt her heart sink.

She had voted for the president-elect on the belief that he would knock the moneyed elites from their perch in Washington, D.C. And she knew Trump’s pick for Treasury – Steven Mnuchin – all too well.

OneWest, a bank formerly owned by a group of investors headed by Mnuchin, had foreclosed on her Los Angeles-area home in the aftermath of the Great Recession, stripping her of the two units she rented as a primary source of income.

“I just wish that I had not voted,” said Colebrook, 59. “I have no faith in our government anymore at all. They all promise you the world at the end of a stick and take it away once they get in.”

Less than a month after his presidential win, Trump’s populist appeal has started to clash with a Cabinet of billionaires and millionaires that he believes can energize economic growth.

The prospect of Mnuchin leading the Treasury Department drew plaudits from many in the financial sector. A former Goldman Sachs executive who pivoted in the early 2000s to hedge fund management and movie production, he seemed an ideal emissary to Wall Street.

When asked on Wednesday about his credentials to be Treasury secretary, Mnuchin emphasized his time running OneWest – which not only foreclosed on Colebrook but also thousands of others in the aftermath of the housing crisis caused by sub-prime mortgages.

“What I’ve really been focused on is being a regional banker for the last eight years,” Mnuchin said. “I know what it takes to make sure that we can make loans to small and mid-market companies and that’s going to be our big focus, making sure we scale back regulation so that we make sure the banks are lending.”

But the prospect of Mnuchin leading the Treasury Department prompted Colebrook and other OneWest borrowers who say they unfairly faced foreclosure to contact The Associated Press. Colebrook wishes she could meet with Trump to explain why she feels betrayed by his Cabinet selection after believing that his presidency could restore the balance of power to everyday people.

“He doesn’t want the truth,” she said. “He’s now backing his buddies.”

For Mnuchin, the fundamental problem stems from the Great Recession. His investor group was the sole bidder to take control of the troubled bank IndyMac in 2009. The group struck a deal that left the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation responsible for taking as much as 80 percent of the losses on former IndyMac assets and rebranded the troubled bank as OneWest.

The combination of OneWest’s profitability, government guarantees and foreclosure activities drew the ire of activist groups like the California Reinvestment Coalition. It found the bank to be consistently one of the most difficult to work out loan modifications with even though OneWest never drew a major response from government regulators.

By June 2014, five years after taking over OneWest, Mnuchin sold the bank for $3.4 billion at a tremendous profit.

Colebrook said she learned the hard way about OneWest’s tactics, after the regional bank acquired her home lender, First Federal Bank of California, in late 2009.

In 1998, she bought a triplex for $248,000 in Hawthorne, California, not too far from Los Angeles International Airport.

She rented out two of the units and lived in the third. Colebrook refinanced her mortgage in order to renovate the property and help buy additional homes to generate rental income.

By the time the financial crisis struck in 2008, she had an interest-only mortgage on the triplex known as a “pick-a-payment” loan. Her monthly payments ran as high as $2,000 and only covered the interest on the debt. Then she got ensnarled in the economic downturn.

“All my tenants lost their jobs in the crash,” Colebrook said. “They couldn’t pay.”

Over five years, she tried unsuccessfully to adjust her loan with OneWest through the Treasury Department’s Home Affordable Modification Program. But she said that OneWest Bank lost paperwork, provided conflicting statements about ownership of the loan and submitted charges that were unverified and caused her loan balance to balloon. By the time she lost her home in foreclosure in April 2015, the payoff balance totaled $517,662.

Colebrook said she is still challenging the foreclosure in court.

She now lives with her boyfriend in the small California city of San Luis Obispo. She volunteers at a homeless shelter, knowing that she could just as easily have ended up there.

“I cook at the homeless shelter because there but the grace of God go I.”

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 22:18:11 +0000
Ford recalls 680,000 cars; seat belts may not hold in crash Fri, 02 Dec 2016 15:02:37 +0000 DETROIT — Ford is recalling more than 680,000 midsize sedans mainly in North America because the front seat belts may not hold people in a crash.

The recall covers certain 2013 to 2016 Ford Fusion, 2013 to 2015 Lincoln MKZ and 2015 and 2016 Ford Mondeo cars.

See list of affected vehicles.

Ford says heat generated when the seat belt pre-tensioners deploy can cause cables to break. If that happens the belts may not hold people. Ford says it knows of two injuries related to the problem.

Pre-tensioners tighten seat belts when they sense that cars are stopping.

Dealers will inject insulation into the pre-tensioners to protect the cables from heat at no cost to owners. The recall is expected to begin on Jan. 16.

Most of the cars are in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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Latest jobs report suggests Trump will be inheriting a solid but uneven economy Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:43:35 +0000 WASHINGTON — The U.S. jobs report on Friday made one thing clear: President-elect Donald Trump will inherit the same two-track U.S. economy that bedeviled his predecessor.

Hiring is solid and the unemployment rate low. But longer-term problems persist – especially a stubbornly high number of men who are out of work and have given up looking. Many are likely frustrated former manufacturing workers who voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Employers added 178,000 jobs in November, the government said, extending the longest streak of hiring since World War II. And the unemployment rate sank from 4.9 percent to a nine-year low of 4.6 percent. Yet the jobless rate dropped mainly because many of those out of work gave up on their job hunts and were no longer counted as unemployed.

A key challenge for the Trump administration is to extend the benefits of job growth to include many of those who feel left out. The job market’s durability will help to some extent. Eventually, low unemployment should compel employers to offer higher pay to attract more workers. That, in turn, could persuade more Americans to resume their job hunts and find work.

“With the unemployment rate this low and wages rising, now is the real test of whether a stronger economy can bring people back into the job market,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at job hunting website Indeed.

Aside from the longer-term challenges, recent data suggest that the economy is in decent shape. Americans bought homes in October at the fastest pace in nearly a decade. They’re also more confident in the economy than at any other point in the past nine years and are spending more.

Those trends are keeping the Federal Reserve on track to raise short-term interest rates at its next meeting in less than two weeks.

“For the Fed, barring a very adverse … development, a hike at the Dec. 14 meeting appears to be a done deal,” said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan Chase.


Two measures illustrate the mixed nature of the economic recovery:

The unemployment rate is now back to where it was in August 2007 – four months before the Great Recession began. That suggests that the economy has fully recovered.

Yet the percentage of all adults with jobs is still 3 percentage points below where it was in August 2007. Some of that decline has been driven by retirements among the aging baby boom generation. But for men age 25 through 54 years old – prime working years – the proportion who have jobs remains substantially below its pre-recession level. That translates into millions of men who are neither working nor looking for work.

Why have so many men dropped out?

Kolko says that is “probably the biggest question facing the labor market today.”

Many men who aren’t working blame mental or physical health problems. Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton and a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, has found that nearly half of men ages 25 through 54 who are outside the workforce take pain medication.

The nation has lost nearly a third of its manufacturing jobs since 2000, and many who once held those positions have struggled to find work that pays as well.

But Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, notes that most European countries also lost manufacturing jobs, yet haven’t seen a similar decline in male employment.

Instead, Eberstadt points to high levels of incarceration over the past three decades. That’s left millions of men with criminal records that can make it hard for them to find work even years after they’ve completed their sentences.

Randy Shacka, president of Lansing, Michigan-based moving firm Two Men and a Truck, says job applicants have had a harder time passing drug tests in recent years, particularly in states that have eased marijuana laws.

The company hopes to add 3,000 to its 8,000-person staff by June, when moving season heats up. But with unemployment down and the economy growing consistently, the company has had to try harder to find qualified applicants. It recently introduced a 401(k) plan and has ramped up training, Shacka said.


Sluggish pay gains have been a chronic problem for the economy and have provided less incentive for those who have dropped out to resume job hunts. Average hourly pay slipped in November and has risen just 2.5 percent in the past year. Wage increases remain below the level consistent with healthy growth.

The economy “is fundamentally underperforming, and needs structural fixes to improve its long-term growth rate,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the conservative American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Holtz-Eakin said the Trump administration’s plans to cut corporate and individual taxes and lift many regulations should enable companies to invest in machinery and other equipment. That, in turn, could make workers more productive and boost pay.

Dave Arndt, chief executive of Pentaflex, a manufacturer in Springfield, Ohio, hopes Trump will also follow through on his promise to boost spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Pentaflex makes axles, exhaust systems and other parts for long-haul trucks. It’s had to cut jobs in the past year as truckers have shipped less freight. More building would mean more shipping of construction materials.

“Anything that puts more trucks on the road is good for business,” Arndt said.

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 22:30:22 +0000
Among Greater Portland landlords, ‘shock waves’ from Nisbet jail sentence Fri, 02 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Landlords in Greater Portland say a judge’s decision to sentence the owner of an apartment building to three months in prison for a building code violation is a wake-up call for those who manage or own rental property.

Justice Thomas Warren sentenced Portland landlord Gregory Nisbet on the misdemeanor charge in Superior Court on Thursday. Warren could have imposed the maximum sentence of six months, but opted for 90 days in jail and the maximum fine of $1,000.

In October, Nisbet was acquitted of manslaughter charges stemming from a deadly 2014 fire at the building on Noyes Street that killed six people. The code violation stemmed from having a window on the third floor that was too small to qualify as an emergency escape route.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said putting a landlord in jail has sent “shock waves” throughout the landlord community.

“This is a big deal. It’s shocking,” Vitalius said. “The judge has certainly made a game-changing call. It’s just a completely different approach to code issues.”


Jim Harmon of Portland has been a landlord for 40 years and currently owns 20 apartment buildings with more than 120 rental units.

“I think (the judge’s decision) is a wake-up call for landlords,” said Harmon, who felt the sentence was too harsh. Harmon said 30 days would have been more appropriate.

“It could have happened to any one of us, but it also proves that you have to keep eyes and ears on your properties,” he said.

A few years ago, a tenant removed a smoke detector from his Portland apartment without Harmon’s knowledge. A fire destroyed the apartment and an adjacent hallway, but did not spread beyond the apartment. Harmon said the tenant, who was a smoker, admitted to the city’s fire chief that he had removed the smoke detector. The tenant was not fined.

Tenants had disabled smoke detectors at Nisbet’s property on Noyes Street.

“Tenants can create a lot of problems,” Harmon said. “They’re so invested in their own lives they aren’t paying close enough attention to the safety factors.”

Carleton Winslow of Portland, who has been a landlord since 1971 and now owns 11 buildings with about 20 units, is vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association and a board member of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. Like many property managers, Winslow followed Nisbet’s trial closely.

“Speaking for myself only, I think (Nisbet) got off a little light. There was some negligence,” Winslow said. “I’m not terribly surprised that he is going to jail. I think the jail sentence sends a much bigger message than just a fine.”

Winslow believes this is the first time in Maine that a landlord was sentenced to jail for a building code violation.

He said the jail sentence is not a game-changer for the rental industry. Landlords will continue to buy and rent properties, but they will be more cognizant of safety issues.

“The case has definitely changed things. Landlords will be more attentive to safety issues, and absentee landlords are certainly more aware of safety issues,” he said.


Elizabeth Burke owns an apartment house where four tenants live on the first floor at 5 Oakdale St. in Portland near the University of Southern Maine.

“I’m not shocked that (Nisbet) will be going to jail. I think it’s appropriate,” she said.

Burke said landlords have a responsibility to monitor their tenants’ activities, and renters have an obligation to pitch in as well. In exchange for keeping their rent reasonable, Burke said she requires that tenants help with raking leaves and removing snow.

“I think what landlords need to keep in mind is that tenants are not as invested in a property as a landlord might be and you have to stay on top of them,” she said.


]]> 0 Fri, 02 Dec 2016 08:10:03 +0000
Smartphones changing the way people shop Fri, 02 Dec 2016 00:34:45 +0000 NEW YORK — Shoppers buying on their phones this holiday season will see new ways stores are making it easier and faster as they try to lock in sales before people swipe to the next site.

“It’s not just a shopper’s tool,” said Tamara Gaffney, principal analyst and director at Adobe Digital Insights, the research arm of Adobe Systems. “It’s now so embedded in our existence we don’t even think about the fact that we pulled out our phone and bought things.”

Mobile shopping accounted for $4.61 billion in sales from Thanksgiving through Monday, according to Adobe Digital Insights. Some 54 percent of visits to retailers’ sites and 36 percent of sales for the five-day period came from phones and tablets.

Here are four ways smartphones are changing the way people shop – and how retailers are responding:


Mobile shopping entices people to buy right when they’re thinking about it, Gaffney said, “It’s this sense of urgency.” She noted that retailers that had more mobile traffic enjoyed a 30 percent increase in online revenue.

Retailers need to make it easier to find items so shoppers don’t quickly move on.

“They want it fast,” said Peter Cobb, co-founder and executive vice president of eBags, which says mobile accounted for 43 percent of visits and 20 percent of sales for the five-day period. The handbags and luggage site now highlights the top five sales hits to save people from sorting through 90,000 products.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has worked to improve its app including the browse feature, said 70 percent of traffic and 60 percent of orders Thursday and Friday were driven by mobile devices.


Even in an improving economy, shoppers are fixated on deals – and mobile phones make it easier to grab them.

Customers look to have spent nearly 3.5 percent less on average for the four-day weekend starting Thursday than a year ago, according to a survey conducted over the weekend by the National Retail Federation trade group. Much of the drop had to do with the heavy discounting shoppers demand. The NRF’s survey showed more than 36 percent of shoppers said everything they bought this past weekend was on sale, compared with 32.5 percent a year ago.

Retailers are shifting to a stream of discounts and alerts during the entire week via email and social media. Toys R Us is doing more flash sales, and eBags introduced a page called “Steals and Deals” highlighting items that are heavily discounted for a limited time.

Market Track, which monitored nearly 1,500 products online from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, says stores changed prices more often than last year, and more were lowered than raised.

Some 41 percent of prices shifted at least once, compared with 27 percent last year, said Traci Gregorski, senior vice president of marketing. About 16 percent changed more than once, compared with only 7 percent in 2015.


People buying on the go want a swifter response when they need help.

“When you have shoppers who are engaged, you have to try to capture as much revenue as you can,” said Kevon Hills, senior vice president of operations at StellaService, which tracks customer service for retailers and online companies.

Two years ago, 97 percent of retailers offered email as a way to interact with customers, but that fell to 81 percent heading into this holiday season, StellaService said. Some 90 percent use live chat, up from 80 percent two years ago. And in 61 percent of chat interactions over the holiday weekend, someone responded within 20 seconds, up from 45 percent a year ago.

Cobb says eBags has started using Facebook messenger to interact with shoppers.


Even people who’d bought lots of items on their phones were spending time in stores on Saturday and Sunday, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at research firm NPD Group Inc.

“In the past, consumers did their research online and then purchased in-store, but brick and mortar stores are now critical to consumers’ research needs,” he wrote in a blog post. He said “consumers came and bought, impulsively and socially.”

Technology beyond shopping apps means people use stores differently.

“They do research online, compare prices, look for deals and even try on an outfit and Snapchat it to a friend, all while in the store,” said Tom McGee, CEO of the mall group International Council of Shopping Centers.

They’re also using the phone to buy right in the store.

Many retailers believe letting online shoppers pick up their orders at stores is helping bring mobile shoppers back. Wal-Mart says nearly half of its pickup orders came from mobile purchases over the five-day weekend, and that shoppers buy more items when they come to collect their goods.

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 21:28:59 +0000
Starbucks mislabels Oregon landmark on travel mug Fri, 02 Dec 2016 00:17:29 +0000 PORTLAND, Ore. — Starbucks could be in for a new coffee cup-related brouhaha after mislabeling a landmark on an Oregon-themed travel mug.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reports that the coffee chain has introduced a travel mug bearing sketches of notable Oregon landmarks, including Crater Lake National Park, food carts in Portland and Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival.

But there was also a waterfall design identified as “Klamath Falls” — and no such waterfall exists.

The simple line drawing of a falls topped by an arched bridge was likely meant to depict the majestic Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Klamath Falls is a town in southern Oregon.

]]> 0, 02 Dec 2016 16:18:19 +0000
Starbucks CEO stepping down to become executive chairman Fri, 02 Dec 2016 00:13:53 +0000 NEW YORK — Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz is stepping down as CEO of the coffee chain he joined more than 30 years ago and transformed into a global brand.

Schultz will become executive chairman in April to focus on innovation and social impact activities, the Seattle-based chain announced Thursday. Kevin Johnson, who was named president and chief operating officer last year, will be chief executive as of April 3.

Schultz, 63, is credited with turning around Starbucks’ fortunes since returning as its CEO in 2008. He has overseen the expansion of the chain’s food and beverage offerings and the growth of its popular loyalty program and mobile app.

Starbucks has credited the rewards program and app for helping consistently increase sales in the U.S., although growth has slowed more recently and traffic slipped in the latest quarter. Schultz has said such technology adaptions will become increasingly critical for brick-and-mortar retail businesses to thrive as shopping habits change.

Shares of Starbucks slid 3.6 percent to $56.44 in after-hours trading.

During a conference call to discuss the announcement, an analyst called Schultz a “master merchant” who has been able to determine and even stimulate “what the Starbucks customer wants and needs” and asked if that “merchant gene” would still be present in those leading the company. Another noted that Starbucks struggled after Schultz stepped away as CEO in 2000, and asked what was different this time.

Schultz said the company has built a strong leadership team in recent years. He also noted that he is not leaving the company, and would be working on developing the Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, which are high-end retail concepts featuring coffee beans and drinks like “cold brew” coffee. Schultz called it the “next wave of retail innovation.”

“But Kevin and the team are in charge,” Schultz said.

In a note issued before Starbucks announced the change, RBC Capital Markets analyst David Palmer said he believed the company can regain its domestic sales momentum by focusing on expanding its rewards program and the changes it is making to its food menu.

Over the years, Schultz has said that people expect more from public companies, and has aligned himself and Starbucks with social issues like race and jobs for underprivileged youth. In September, he publicly endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in an interview with CNN, and did not rule out running for office at some point.

Schultz said during the call that he has been working closely with Johnson, who joined the Starbucks board in 2009.

Johnson, 56, will take charge of the company’s global business and operations.

He spent years at technology companies including 16 years with Microsoft and five as Juniper Networks CEO.

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 21:37:16 +0000
Slow economic growth means Christmas gifts going for a song – almost Thu, 01 Dec 2016 23:55:30 +0000 PITTSBURGH — The slow recovery of the U.S. economy is continuing to keep the cost of Christmas – or at least the gifts listed in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – from spiraling out of control.

The price of two turtle doves jumped from $290 to $375 this year, but nine of the other 12 gifts listed in the carol stayed the same price or became cheaper, including a partridge in a pear tree, according to the 33rd annual PNC Wealth Management Christmas Price Index released Thursday.

As a result, the overall cost of the gifts listed in the song increased 0.7 percent to $34,363, up $233 from last year’s total of $34,131.

PNC Financial Services Group releases the price index each year as a whimsical way of tracking inflation.

Besides the turtle doves, only the cost of 11 pipers piping and 12 drummers drumming – both up 2.8 percent – increased.

Thomas Melcher, chief Investment officers for PNC Asset Management Group, said the increasing wages of drummers and pipers could signal a march toward higher wages for a broader range of workers in 2017. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to see increases coming for the eight maids-a-milking, nine ladies dancing and 10 lords-a-leaping.

“There are some underlying inflationary pressures that seem to be building,” Melcher said.

The price of five gold rings, as tracked by PNC, hasn’t gone up in three years, even though the price of gold as a commodity has.

“At a certain point, the end product should begin to reflect the price appreciation of the commodity,” Melcher said.

PNC calculates the prices from sources including retailers, bird hatcheries and two Philadelphia dance groups, the Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadanco.

The cost of buying the same gifts online is $44,603 this year, up 2.2 percent from $43,627 last year. But Melcher cautioned that’s largely because it costs more to transport animals and performers – 10 lords-a-leaping cost $5,509 in-person, but $13,373 online because of transportation costs – than the cost of the items themselves.

“In most instances, it’s cheaper to shop online,” Melcher said. “I’ve never personally shipped a swan, but I imagine it’s not the cheapest endeavor in the world.”

A buyer who purchased all the gifts each time they are mentioned in the song would spend $156,507, up $1,100 from last year.

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 22:21:54 +0000
How Trump’s Carrier deal stacks up in perennial quest to save manufacturing Thu, 01 Dec 2016 17:42:24 +0000 President-elect Donald Trump accomplished what many people saw as his first victory on the manufacturing front this week, as he persuaded an air-conditioning factory in Indiana not to move up to 1,000 jobs to Mexico.

Many saw it as a step toward fulfilling Trump’s promise of reviving well-paying factory jobs. Yet the number of jobs saved at the Carrier factory is still extremely small compared to the number of manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the U.S. in recent years – so small, in fact, that these kinds of deals alone seem unlikely to do much to revive the manufacturing industry.

Since 2000, the U.S. has gone from having 17.3 million manufacturing jobs to around 12.3 million, a net loss of about 5 million jobs. The number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. bottomed out in 2010 at around 11.5 million and has risen in the years since.

Data show that Trump could negotiate a Carrier-like deal every week for the rest of his presidency, and still only restore about 4 percent of the manufacturing jobs that the U.S. has lost since 2000, as The New York Times’ Paul Krugman tweeted Wednesday.

Indiana alone has lost a net 147,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000 – meaning the Carrier jobs represent only 0.2 percent of manufacturing jobs lost in the state in that period. As The New York Times points out, Indiana has also added about 300,000 private sector jobs in the same period, but nearly three-quarters of those have been service sector jobs, which are on average lower-paying.

Liberals were also quick to argue that the effects of President Obama’s bailout of the auto industry during the recession dwarfed the number of jobs saved in the Carrier deal. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the program had created 805,000 jobs over eight years, not including jobs that were saved, like at Carrier.

“So, if he does that 804 more times, he will have matched the standard set by President Obama – at least when it comes to creating manufacturing jobs,” Earnest said.

]]> 0 Thu, 01 Dec 2016 23:19:48 +0000
U.S. 30-year mortgage rates rise to highest levels this year Thu, 01 Dec 2016 17:16:55 +0000 WASHINGTON — Long-term U.S. mortgage rates marked a fifth week of surges in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election win, the average reaching 4.08 percent, the highest level this year.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate loan rose to 4.08 percent from 4.03 percent the previous week. The benchmark rate topped its 3.93 percent level of a year ago.

The rate on 15-year home loans, a popular choice for people who are refinancing, jumped to 3.34 percent from 3.25 percent.

Long-term mortgage and interest rates have climbed in the four weeks since Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 9 to become the country’s next president.

Bond investors are looking toward tax cuts and increased government spending to upgrade roads, bridges and airports under a Trump administration, which could fuel inflation. That would depress prices of long-term Treasury bonds because inflation would erode their value over time. When bond investors foresee rising inflation, they demand higher long-term yields and pay lower prices for bonds. Bond yields move opposite to prices and also influence long-term mortgage rates.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury bond stood at 2.38 percent Wednesday, the same as a week earlier and up from 1.87 percent on Election Day Nov. 8. It climbed to 2.45 percent Thursday morning, its highest level since July 2015.

More immediately, Federal Reserve policymakers are expected to raise the central bank’s benchmark rate at their Dec. 13-14 meeting for the first time in nearly a year. Fed Chair Janet Yellen recently told Congress that the case for a rate boost has “continued to strengthen.”

The effect of advancing mortgage rates could be seen in reduced activity by prospective homebuyers. Applications for mortgage loans fell 9.4 percent in the week ended Nov. 25 from a week earlier, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Applications for refinancing dipped 16 percent.

Higher mortgage rates, along with rising house prices, could eventually reduce demand for housing.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country between Monday and Wednesday each week.

The average doesn’t include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.

The average fee for a 30-year mortgage was unchanged this week at 0.5 point. The fee on 15-year loans also remained at 0.5 point.

Rates on adjustable five-year loans rose to 3.15 percent from 3.12 percent. The fee was steady at 0.4 point.

]]> 0 Thu, 01 Dec 2016 17:58:09 +0000
UNE, Apothecary by Design launching program for pharmacists Thu, 01 Dec 2016 17:14:13 +0000 The University of New England and local pharmaceutical company Apothecary by Design are launching a residency program this spring to train specialty pharmacists.

The program will allow pharmacists to learn from real-world experience with “specialty” medications, which typically involve high costs, complex administration and unique handling requirements, according to a joint news release from the two organizations. Specialty pharmacy is the sole focus of Apothecary by Design, a fast-growing segment of the pharmacy industry.

The one-year, Portland-based program will provide hands-on management and clinical training around conditions such as infertility, organ transplant, hepatitis C, HIV and rheumatoid arthritis.

“With recent advances in science, specialty care is at the forefront of pharmacy, and Apothecary by Design is at the forefront of specialty,” Kenneth McCall, a UNE associate professor who serves as a key preceptor of the program, said in the release. “The University of New England College of Pharmacy is thrilled to be partnering with ABD to offer this unique opportunity, which complements the other rich resources we bring to the profession of pharmacy.”

There are currently more than 1,700 pharmacy residency programs in the country, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, but it’s estimated that fewer than a dozen concentrate in specialty pharmacy, according to the release.

In September of last year, BelHealth Investment Partners, a New York private equity firm, acquired a controlling interest in Apothecary by Design, to position it as the corporate parent for future acquisitions. Since then, ABD has acquired pharmacies in Chicago and the Boston area.

UNE established its pharmacy college in 2009.

]]> 0 Thu, 01 Dec 2016 21:31:48 +0000
Q&A: Can my employer fire me for legally using marijuana? Thu, 01 Dec 2016 15:25:00 +0000 BOSTON — Changing marijuana laws aren’t necessarily making weed more welcome in the workplace.

For now, many employers appear to be sticking with their drug testing and personal conduct policies, even in states where recreational marijuana use is now permitted. Others are keeping a close eye on the still evolving legal, regulatory and political environment.

Voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada voted Nov. 8 to approve the use of recreational marijuana, joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, where it had previously been legalized. (A recount of Maine’s close result is scheduled.) More than two dozen states have medical marijuana programs.

But the drug is still against federal law.

A closer look at what it all means for workers and businesses:

Can my employer still test me for pot?

Bottom line: You can’t come to work high. You can still be drug tested. And you can still be fired — or not hired — for failing a drug test even if you’re not the least bit impaired at work.

All the states with legalized recreational pot have exemptions for workplace drug policies.

In Massachusetts, for example, the law includes language stating that “the authority of employers to enact and enforce workplace policies restricting the consumption of marijuana by employees” is not changed.

“Yes, you may be able to have (marijuana) at home, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK in the workplace,” said Edward Yost, an HR specialist with the Society for Human Resources Management.

What about workplace safety?

Advocates for marijuana legalization said it was never their intention to compromise safety, a central reason offered by employers for drug testing.

“We don’t want anyone to come to work impaired on any drugs,” said David Boyer, campaign manager for the ballot initiative in Maine.

A 2013 survey by the employee screening firm HireRight found 78 percent of employers conducted drug tests either randomly, as a condition of employment, after accidents or for some combination of those reasons.

The federal government requires drug testing for some workers, including truck drivers and others in transportation.

Quest Diagnostics, which performed nearly 11 million laboratory-based drug tests for employers in 2015, said the percentage of tests coming back positive has shown a modest increase in recent years. Nearly half of all positive tests showed evidence of marijuana use.

Can I get fired even if I’m not high?

THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, can stay in a person’s system for days or even weeks, experts say — long after the buzz has subsided.

“It’s the equivalent of firing somebody who drank a glass of wine on Friday evening and then came to work on Monday,” said Tamar Todd, legal director for the Drug Policy Alliance, who believes employers should reconsider zero-tolerance policies in light of changing laws and attitudes.

A number of efforts are underway to develop an accurate method, akin to the Breathalyzer for alcohol, to measure actual marijuana impairment. Such a test might be useful not only for employers, but also for police and prosecutors trying to determine what constitutes driving under the influence of marijuana in states where recreational pot is legal.

What should companies do?

At a minimum, companies should review their current polices, make sure their managers are trained and make clear to employees that marijuana use on or off the job can still land them in trouble, said James Reidy, a New Hampshire-based attorney who advises clients around the country on drug testing issues.

Tina Sharby, chief human resources officer for an Easter Seals affiliate with about 1,700 employees in New England, said the organization, which provides services for people with special needs, is monitoring the evolving legal and regulatory environment but is sticking with its drug testing protocols for now.

“We have a drug-free workplace policy, and we believe that the current policy we have is effective,” Sharby said.

But drug testing and zero-tolerance rules can also make it difficult for businesses with a need to recruit young professionals who may harbor more liberal attitudes toward pot.

“We have ski industries out here, and if they really took a hard line on marijuana use, they would have to shut down,” said Curtis Graves, information resource manager for the Colorado-based Mountain States Employers Council.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, surveys showed an uptick in workplace drug testing, Graves said, but that trend has begun to shift in the other direction.

“Employers who have a zero-tolerance policy maybe shouldn’t apply that to non-safety sensitive workers, because if they do testing on them, they run the risk of inviting an invasion of privacy claim,” suggested Amanda Baer, a Boston-area attorney who specializes in labor and employment issues.

What do courts say?

Adding to the uncertainty is the scarcity of legal precedent in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. But several cases involving employees with permits to use medical marijuana have reached the courts, and most have been decided in employers’ favor.

The most widely cited case is a 2015 Colorado Supreme Court that upheld Dish Network’s firing of a disabled man who used medical marijuana and failed a drug test. The court ruled that a state law barring employers from firing workers for off-duty behavior that is legal did not apply because pot remains illegal under federal law.

Similar rulings have been issued in other states including California, Montana and Washington.

As medical marijuana programs become more common even in states where recreational pot remains outlawed, some companies have begun to weigh accommodations for workers with permission to use marijuana for an existing health condition.

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 17:51:56 +0000
Unemployment claims rise, but rate remains low Thu, 01 Dec 2016 14:49:02 +0000 WASHINGTON — More Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. But claims are still at low levels that point to greater job security.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless aid rose by 17,000 to a seasonally adjusted 268,000. The less-volatile four-week average ticked up 500 to 251,500. The overall number of people collecting unemployment checks was 2.08 million, down more than 5 percent from a year earlier.

Weekly claims are at historically low levels that suggest a stable environment for jobseekers. Weekly claims have stayed below 300,000 for 91 straight weeks, longest streak since 1970, when the total number of workers in the U.S. economy was smaller than today’s levels.

Applications for jobless benefits are a proxy for layoffs. The current levels suggest employers are confident that growth will continue. The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, close to what economists consider full employment.

Workers in October received the largest annual average pay increases in seven years, another sign the job market is healthy.

Economists forecast that the government’s jobs report, to be released Friday, will show a gain of 174,000 jobs in November, according to data provider FactSet.

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 17:59:01 +0000
Maine looking for rainmaker to revive forest markets Thu, 01 Dec 2016 09:00:30 +0000 The LePage administration is seeking help to “stem the slide of Maine’s forest products industry” and identify additional wood markets following mill closures and other events that have rocked the state’s forest-based economy.

The Maine Forest Service plans to hire a temporary “point person” – or a firm – to find ways to strengthen and expand a key part of the state’s economy that the agency says is “at a critical turning point.” The closure of five Maine paper mills in two years, global competition and shrinking demand for so-called biomass products have, for the first time in three decades, left some woodland owners without a market.

“It’s not related to any specific incident – it was the cumulative effect,” Don Mansius, director of forest policy and management at the Maine Forest Service, said of the project. “Until recently, we could say that Maine wood owners had a market for every stick, but that is not the case now. So we are looking for opportunities to revive the forest products industry.”

The envisioned contractor position – advertised in a “request for proposals” released last week – is one of several efforts underway at the state, federal and industry level to help a sector that not long ago was the largest economic engine in Maine. It is unclear how those efforts will mesh together, however.

In August, for instance, two dozen federal officials representing eight agencies came to Maine to work with the forest products industry to devise a plan forward after several pulp and paper mill closures. Yet Gov. Paul LePage – an outspoken critic of President Obama – did not send anyone from his administration to participate in the high-profile tour, despite the fact that members of Maine’s congressional delegation requested the visit by the federal “assessment team.”

The LePage administration’s latest request for proposals is financed with the help of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The winner of the contract – worth up to $210,000 over three years – would be expected to research new opportunities for Maine wood products while actively marketing the state’s industry to potential investors via a “What Maine has to Offer” guide.

Additionally, the contractor would identify bottlenecks to new investment or policy issues hurting the current industry. The person or firm would also work to improve relations and communications between the forest products industry and the state about the situation on the ground in order to avoid surprise announcements such as mill closures or major cutbacks.


Players in Maine’s forest products industries are trying hard to adapt to changing markets, such as three paper mills that recently converted machines to produce specialty products.

The official “request for proposals” and the application for federal funds lays out both the challenges and opportunities, saying that the project’s resulting investments of state, federal and private resources will “help stem the slide of Maine’s forest products industry and . . . assist in a turnaround.”

“Maine’s forest-based economy is at a critical turning point,” reads the request for proposals. “Although closures of wood processing facilities have affected all states over the last two decades, until recently, Maine has been able to weather industry downturns, and even the loss of some sectors of the forest products cluster.”

But the loss of three large paper mills in 2014 and 2015, cutbacks at others and dropping demand for wood for biomass energy “has tipped the scale,” reads the document.

Maine is the most heavily forested state in the nation, with 95 percent of that land in private hands. Although still a major pulp and paper producer, the sector in Maine has lost 2,300 jobs in a five-year span amid falling demand and increasing competition domestically, globally and with producers in Canada.

There is still strong demand for hardwood products and wood for lumber from Maine’s forests. However, demand for the type of low-grade softwood used by mills or biomass plants has fallen by roughly 50 percent in recent years, said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council.

Strauch said the Maine Forest Service’s proposal is timely because similar discussions are happening within the industry and academic community in Maine. Those efforts appear to be complementary as all parties try to come up with a road map – or maps – to help the industry diversify and grow amid changing global markets, Strauch said.

For instance, he said Maine is well-poised to ride the wave of interest globally in sustainable, bio-based products that could be made from trees. And the state’s request for proposals said Maine’s healthy forests, research & development programs involving wood products, extensive infrastructure and proximity to major East Coast markets should continue to competitive advantages for the state.

“We can’t always be reacting to things: we need to build and plan a way forward,” Strauch said. “There are a lot of things happening. We just need to be in a position to take advantage of them.”

The contract is expected to last three years, renewed annually. Although pitched as a “forest products industry development specialist,” the contract could be handled by a firm rather than one individual.

“We are competing with Canada and midwestern states … and some of those states have done similar efforts,” Mansius said.

The state undertook an assessment of the future of the forest products industry in 2005, however Strauch said economic and market conditions have changed dramatically since then.


]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 08:28:09 +0000
Trump team outlines keys to its economic growth plan Thu, 01 Dec 2016 04:49:29 +0000 President-elect Donald Trump’s nascent administration on Wednesday began outlining the contours of its strategy for jump-starting the nation’s economy, including how it would overhaul the tax code, rethink trade agreements and directly negotiate with major corporations.

Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin rejected claims that Trump’s tax program would benefit mainly the wealthy, instead highlighting plans for a child-care tax credit and a middle-class tax cut.

“There will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class,” he said on CNBC. “There will be a big tax cut for the middle class.”

Trump’s strategy secured an early victory this week when the president-elect persuaded air-conditioning manufacturer Carrier not to move as many as 1,000 jobs from Indiana to Mexico. The negotiation was an unusual move for a modern president, but Mnuchin suggested such direct intervention would be an important tool under the new administration.

“It starts with an attitude of this administration,” Mnuchin said Wednesday on CNBC. “This president … is going to have open communications with business leaders.”

Mnuchin and Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, also called for moving away from the broad multinational free trade agreements that have shaped the global economy over the past generation in favor of bilateral deals. But they stopped short of embracing Trump’s most heated election rhetoric: calling for double-digit tariffs on imports from China and Mexico.

Turning Trump’s sweeping campaign promises into reality could prove a daunting challenge for his newly named economics team. Trump’s proposals are aggressive, starting with a pledge to create 25 million jobs and push growth to 4 percent annually.

Many economists have questioned whether that is even possible in the face of an aging workforce and slower growth in productivity. In addition, rewriting the tax code would be a mammoth undertaking that has eluded Republican lawmakers since the 1980s, and independent analysts cast doubt on whether Trump can make the numbers add up.

On Wednesday, Trump’s new economic team said that overhauling taxes – particularly cutting the corporate tax rate – would create incentives for businesses to invest and hire more workers, eventually resulting in higher tax revenue. But an analysis by the independent Tax Foundation estimated that Trump’s plan would cost at least $2.6 trillion over the next decade, even after accounting for stronger growth.

Mnuchin and Ross reiterated the administration’s commitment to cutting taxes for the middle class, but that remains a key difference between the campaign’s plan and the tax blueprint put forth by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

The congressional plan, like Trump’s, would cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, but it would not do nearly as much as Trump would to cut taxes for lower- and middle-income Americans.

Reconciling the two will be a major sticking point in any tax-reform negotiations next year, although House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., praised Trump’s nominees Wednesday.

“I am excited to get to work with this strong team to fix our broken tax code, ease the regulatory burden on American businesses, and grow our economy,” he said.

Mnuchin also pushed back against analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center that found the bulk of the benefits under Trump’s plan would go to wealthy households, while some single-parent households would pay higher taxes.

Business groups welcomed the focus on tax cuts and praised Trump’s nomination of Cabinet officials with industry backgrounds.

“They understand that modernizing our outdated, anticompetitive tax system will be the most effective way to produce the economic growth that puts more people to work in good jobs,” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable.

On trade, Mnuchin and Ross sounded a somewhat softer note than Trump did on the campaign trail. During the election, Trump called China the world’s “single greatest currency manipulator.” But on Wednesday, his top economic advisers demurred when asked whether they would take formal action against the country.

“If we determine that we need to label them as a currency manipulator, that’s something the Treasury would do,” Mnuchin said.

They expressed disapproval of sweeping multinational trade agreements, but backed away from threats to impose double-digit tariffs on imports from Mexico and China.

“Everybody talks about tariffs as the first things. Tariffs are the last thing. Tariffs are a part of the negotiation,” Ross said on CNBC. “The real trick is going to be increase American exports.”

Trump’s efforts to keep Carrier in Indiana underscore both the potential benefits and pitfalls of his hands-on approach. Under the agreement, the company will receive tax incentives from the state economic development corporation to keep about 1,000 jobs in the state, said John Mutz, a member of the agency’s board.

If the agreement is only for a few years, Trump’s efforts might give workers only a temporary reprieve.

Experts said such custom deals such as the one struck with Carrier could create a haphazard system in which the government winds up picking corporate winners and losers, said Timothy Bartik, an economist at the nonpartisan W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

“If you think of things as deals, who gets the deals?” Bartik said.

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 13:46:23 +0000
Cyber Monday remains tops for online shopping Thu, 01 Dec 2016 02:16:16 +0000 NEW YORK — Cyber Monday is still on top. Reports from two research firms show that the Monday after Thanksgiving was still the busiest U.S. online shopping day of the holiday season, though others are gaining ground.

Research firm comScore said Wednesday that desktop computer spending on Monday rose 17 percent to $2.67 billion. It didn’t give a figure for shopping done on tablets or smartphones, which is an increasing part of the market. Since Nov. 1, sales have risen 12 percent to $29.7 billion compared with the same period a year ago, comScore said. was the busiest site, followed by sites for retailers Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Target.

“Overall, we are very encouraged by the recent pickup in spending growth and particularly strong Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” comScore CEO Gian Fulgoni said.

]]> 0 Wed, 30 Nov 2016 21:16:16 +0000
Netflix announces offline option for subscribers Thu, 01 Dec 2016 01:58:58 +0000 SAN FRANCISCO — Netflix subscribers can now binge on many of their favorite shows and movies even when they don’t have an internet connection.

The long-awaited offline option announced Wednesday gives Netflix’s 87 million subscribers offline access to videos for the first time in the streaming service’s decadelong history.

Netflix is matching a downloading feature that one of its biggest rivals,, has been offering to its video subscribers for the past year. It’s something that also has been available on YouTube’s popular video site, though a subscription is required in the U.S. and other countries where the site sells its “Red” premium service.

The new feature puts Netflix a step ahead of two other major rivals. Offline options aren’t available on HBO’s internet-only package, HBO Now, or Hulu, although that service has publicly said it hopes to introduce a downloading feature.

Netflix subscribers wishing to download a video on their smartphone or tablet need to update the app on their Apple or Android device.

Not all of the selections in Netflix’s video library can be downloaded, although several of the service’s most popular shows, including “Orange Is The New Black,” “House of Cards,” and “Stranger Things,” are now available to watch offline.

Downloadable movies include “Spotlight,” this year’s Oscar winner for best film. Notably missing from the downloadable menu are movies and TV shows made by Walt Disney Co. Those still require an internet connection to watch on Netflix.

The Los Gatos, California, company is promising to continue to adding more titles to its offline roster.

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 20:58:58 +0000
Details lacking about Trump’s announced deal to save Carrier jobs Thu, 01 Dec 2016 00:46:39 +0000 WASHINGTON — In persuading Carrier to keep hundreds of jobs in Indiana, President-elect Donald Trump is claiming victory on behalf of factory workers whose positions were bound for Mexico. But the scant details that have emerged so far raise doubts about the extent of the victory.

By enabling Carrier’s Indianapolis plant to stay open, the deal spares about 800 union workers whose jobs were going to be outsourced to Mexico, according to federal officials who were briefed by the heating and air conditioning company. This suggests that hundreds will still lose their jobs at the factory, where roughly 1,400 workers were slated to be laid off.

Also, neither Trump nor Carrier has yet to say what the workers might have to give up or precisely what threats or incentives were used to get the manufacturer to change its mind.

“There’s excitement with most people, but there’s a lot of skepticism and worry because we don’t know the details,” said TJ Bray, 32, who has worked for Carrier for 14 years and installs insulation in furnaces.

“There’s a few that are worried. And there’s still a few that don’t even believe this is real. They think it’s a play, a set-up or a scam.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat, said he, too, has lingering questions about what the announcement could mean for the workers.

“Who is going to be retained? What is the structure there will be for the retention? What is going to be put in place?” Donnelly said. “Are these the same jobs at the same wage? I would sure like to know as soon as I can.”

Fuller answers could emerge Thursday, when Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who is ending his tenure as Indiana governor, are to appear with Carrier officials in Indiana.

On the campaign trail, Trump threatened to impose sharp tariffs on any company that shifted its factories to Mexico. And his advisers have since promoted lower corporate tax rates as a means of keeping jobs in the U.S.

Trump may have had some leverage because United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company, also owns Pratt & Whitney, a big supplier of fighter jet engines that relies in part on U.S. military contracts.

Carrier said in a statement that more than 1,000 jobs were saved, though that figure includes headquarters and engineering staff that were likely to stay in Indiana.

The company attributed its decision to the incoming Trump administration and financial incentives provided by Indiana, which is something of a reversal, since earlier offers from the state had failed to sway Carrier from decamping to Mexico.

“Today’s announcement is possible because the incoming Trump-Pence administration has emphasized to us its commitment to support the business community and create an improved, more competitive U.S. business climate,” the company said.

In February, United Technologies said it would close its Carrier air conditioning and heating plant in Indianapolis and move its manufacturing to Mexico. The plant’s workers would have been laid off over three years starting in 2017.

Whatever deal Trump struck with Carrier does not appear to have salvaged jobs at a separate branch of United Technologies in Huntington, Indiana, that makes microprocessor-based controls for the heating, air conditioning and refrigeration industries. That branch will move manufacturing operations to a new plant in Mexico, costing the city 700 jobs by 2018.

Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters suggested that local officials lack the political clout to preserve those jobs.

“At a local level, there was not much that anybody was going to do to make global, publicly traded companies make a decision other than what they made for the benefit of their shareholders,” Fetters said.

Donnelly said he worries about other factory job losses threatening his state. Bearing maker Rexnord, which has a factory near the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, plans to lay off about 350 workers. And electronics manufacturer CTS plans to eliminate more than 200 jobs at its Elkhart plant, he said.

Union leaders who represent the Carrier workers were not involved in the negotiations that the Trump team had with their employer.

Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, which represents Carrier workers, said of Tuesday’s news: “I’m optimistic, but I don’t know what the situation is. I guess it’s a good sign. … You would think they would keep us in the loop. But we know nothing.”

Trump’s deal with Carrier may be a public relations success for the incoming president. It also suggests that he has unveiled a new presidential economic approach: actively choosing individual corporate winners and losers – or at least winners.

To critics who see other Indiana factories on the verge of closing, deals like the one at Carrier are unlikely to stem the job losses caused by automation and cheap foreign competition.

The prospect that the White House might directly intervene is also a concern to some economists. The incentives needed to keep jobs from moving often come at the public’s expense. They note that Trump’s activism might encourage companies to threaten to move jobs overseas in hopes of receiving tax breaks or contracts with the government.

“It sets up a race to the bottom,” said Diane Lim, chief economist at the nonprofit Committee for Economic Development.

Carrier’s parent company indicated that moving production to Mexico would save the company $65 million annually. Because of pressures like that, states routinely give manufacturers incentives, and “economists who recoil at the thought of this are living in a dream world,” said Scott Paul, president of the American Alliance for Manufacturing.

For Trump, a challenge will be trying to duplicate the Carrier feat many times over to retain and increase the nation’s 12.3 million manufacturing jobs.

Since the start of 2015, the Labor Department has issued over 1,600 approvals for layoffs or plant closings as a result of shifts of production overseas or competition from imports, the American Alliance of Manufacturing noted.

But other forces, such as consumer demand and the value of the dollar, also determine whether assembly lines keep humming.

Payroll services provider ADP said Wednesday that manufacturers shed 10,000 jobs in November. U.S. manufacturers have struggled in the past year as a stronger dollar has cut into exports and domestic businesses have spent less on machinery and other equipment.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that Trump would have to replicate the Carrier deal 804 times to meet President Obama’s record. He said that Obama created 805,000 jobs in manufacturing and that the figure is much higher if existing jobs that have been protected are included.

Trump acknowledged the extent of the problem on the campaign trail this year.

“So many hundreds and hundreds of companies are doing this,” he said. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us. We have to stop our companies from leaving the United States.”

Carrier wasn’t the only company Trump assailed during the campaign. He pledged to give up Oreos after Nabisco’s parent, Mondelez International, said it would replace nine production lines in Chicago with four in Mexico. He criticized Ford after the company said it planned to invest $2.5 billion in engine and transmission plants in Mexico.

]]> 0 Wed, 30 Nov 2016 23:19:09 +0000
Bangor car dealership could get millions in damages in decade-old dispute Wed, 30 Nov 2016 21:52:20 +0000 A Bangor Ford dealership might be able to recover millions of dollars in damages from the car manufacturer under a ruling issued this week by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The damages are mainly attributable to Ford Motor Co.’s failure to send a certified letter that likely would have cost less than $10.

Darling’s, the dealership, sued Ford a decade ago, arguing that the car company failed to provide proper notice of a change in a sales incentive program. The Supreme Court this week said that a lower court was wrong to limit the damages to a nine-month period in 2005 and said instead that Darling’s should be entitled to damages from the time the program was changed in 2005 to the present day.

For the nine-month period in 2005 alone, the lower court said Darling’s was due damages of nearly $155,000. Now there’s potential for millions in damages, covering sales for more than 10 years, although the lawyer for Darling’s refused to speculate on the amount.

The legal dispute has been going on for more than a decade. Its roots go back to 2001, when Darling’s was named a Blue Oval Certified dealer, based on customer satisfaction ratings, which allowed it to get a bonus from Ford of 1.25 percent of the retail price of each car sold.

In 2004, Ford announced it was ending that program, effective in April 2005, and substituting an “Accelerated Sales Challenge” program that offered substantially lower bonuses to dealers. In the nine months that followed the switch of programs, Darling’s earned $57,875 under the new sales incentive program, but it would have earned $212,570 under the Blue Oval Certified plan.

Darling’s challenged the change in the programs with the Maine Motor Vehicle Franchise Board on the grounds that it was a substantial change of the relationship between the manufacturer and franchise owner and Ford failed to provide proper notice, limiting Darling’s ability to file a protest. The franchise board agreed and awarded Darling’s damages of $145,223 and imposed a penalty of $10,000 on Ford. The board limited the award to the amount that Darling’s lost in incentives over the nine-month period because the dealership had 90 days to appeal the switch to the board and the board had 180 days in which to make a decision.

But two years ago, the Supreme Judicial Court threw out that decision, saying the board had no authority to award damages, only to assess a penalty, which would go to the state, not to the dealership.

So Darling’s instead went to court, where a jury agreed that Ford had failed to properly notify the dealership of the change in the programs because it never sent a certified letter.

The court kept the 90-day limit adopted by the board and awarded Darling’s nearly $155,000.

Both Ford and Darling’s appealed that decision.

This week, the Supreme Judicial Court said there’s no reason to limit the damages to the nine-month period because Ford had never sought to send the proper notification to Darling’s. Before the lower court, Ford cited “business reasons” for failing to follow Maine laws on notice, saying it didn’t want to invite similar challenges from other dealers.

Judy Metcalf, Darling’s lawyer, said 94 percent of Ford dealers nationwide were Blue Oval Certified, and a similar percentage in Maine, but she refused to speculate on how many could potentially seek damages because of improper notification. Other states might have different laws on notification of changes in franchise relationships, she said, and dealers would have had to preserve their objections at the time of change in programs to seek damages.

Maine’s law, according to the Supreme Judicial Court, is intended to level the playing field between manufacturers and dealers when it comes to franchise terms. Without laws regulating matters such as changes in the terms, the ruling this week said, the carmakers would have too much bargaining power to tilt the deals in their favor.

Metcalf said she will soon sit down with Ford’s lawyer to discuss damages.

“It’s really a math calculation,” she said. “All along, we have worked with Ford and there’s no point in throwing numbers out there.” But, she added, “we’re really looking forward to working with Ford on that number.”

]]> 0 Wed, 30 Nov 2016 20:32:59 +0000
Home power rates edge up unexpectedly in southern and central Maine Wed, 30 Nov 2016 21:30:13 +0000 In an unexpected turn, thousands of electricity customers in southern Maine will see a slight increase in the supply portion of their monthly bills following action Wednesday by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The PUC approved an increase in the state’s default rate for electricity supply to homes in Central Maine Power’s service area, starting in January.

After reviewing multiple bids from power providers, the commission voted to accept offers from two companies that will result in the standard offer supply rate rising by 3.5 percent, to nearly 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour. For a typical home that uses 550 kilowatt hours a month, the cost of buying electricity will increase by $1.36, to $36.80.

Small businesses received the same rate as homeowners. Mid-size businesses that use the standard offer will see their rates fall by 1.3 percent on an annual average. Their rates vary by month.

The increase for small customers in CMP’s service area runs counter to market trends, which were reflected in the PUC’s bid selection Tuesday in Emera-Maine’s Bangor service area.

The pending Emera-area rate beginning Jan. 1 will be 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour, a decrease of 4.6 percent. For a typical eastern Maine home that uses 500 kilowatt hours a month, that translates to a savings of $1.52, to $31.63 a month next year .

The standard offer is the default rate for customers who don’t sign contracts with a competitive energy provider.

The new rates are only for the energy-supply portion of electricity bills, not the distribution services provided by Emera and CMP. Under Maine’s 17-year-old electric restructuring law, utilities only distribute power; they don’t generate and sell it. Total electric bills in southern Maine will average about $83 per month, a combination of the supply and distribution charges.

“The standard offer prices set today reflect the best bids received in a very competitive auction process,” commission Chairman Mark Vannoy said in a statement. “We are pleased that some business customers will see a small decrease in their supply prices. On the other hand, the bids received for residential and small business customers result in a slight increase.”

Vannoy offered no explanation for the differences. But the bids are confidential, and although preliminary figures had been submitted weeks ago, the final rate proposals were presented only hours before the commissioners were set to decide. It’s possible, said Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the commission, that some world event – such as Wednesday’s news that the OPEC member countries have agreed to cut oil production – led energy companies to raise the bids.

“We just don’t have a clue,” he said.

Patrick Woodcock, who directs Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office, said he was surprised that the residential bids in CMP territory didn’t mirror other customer classes. Aside from global market decisions, Woodcock speculated that homes and small businesses in southern and central Maine use more power during hours when it’s more costly to provide, and the bidders calculated that difference.

Electricity supply rates in New England are largely dependent on the wholesale cost of natural gas, which is used by power plants to generate roughly half the region’s electricity. Except in 2013 during a cold winter that caused gas prices to spike, supply rates generally have been falling for a decade. They slid from roughly 10 cents per kwh in 2007 to 6.6 cents this year.

Low prices for oil and for liquefied natural gas, which supplements the region’s pipeline supplies, also have been helping keep electric supply prices stable or extending the decline. That’s why the higher bids offered for homes and small businesses in southern and central Maine were unexpected.

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 23:44:00 +0000
Warehouse owners in several states cash in on marijuana prospects Wed, 30 Nov 2016 20:40:12 +0000 It took Chris Abbott six stressful months to find a new space for his growing company. The 10,000-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, was once used to store industrial-strength compressors. Now the gritty space, its cinder walls repainted white, resembles a cross between a high-end laboratory and an industrial bakery. It’s the home of Botanica, Abbott’s edible marijuana company.

The new lease, which will let Botanica expand its business from nearby Washington into the Beaver state, didn’t come cheap. In the Portland area, most companies can rent industrial space for about $5 a square foot annually. Cannabis companies, however, pay a premium ranging from $12 to $18 a square foot.

“We were willing to pay above-market value to have a space there,” Abbott said. “I see the biggest barrier to entry in Oregon as getting real estate.”

The short history of legalized marijuana in the U.S. is rife with tales of tight supply and above-market leases. Local rules on where cannabis businesses can operate, combined with restrictions that prevent them from using bank financing, have limited the property available to entrepreneurs such as Abbott.


Warehouse owners, on the other hand, are cashing in. In November, voters approved ballot measures legalizing recreational marijuana in California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and tentatively, Maine. A handful of other states approved marijuana for medical uses.

It didn’t take long for those votes to ripple through industrial real estate markets. Last year, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based cultivator Canndescent paid $360,000 for a 2.5-acre parcel in Desert Hot Springs. Someone recently offered the company $1 million for the same lot, owner Adrian Sedrin said.

“If you have the right parcel with utilities in the right jurisdiction, your land will definitely appreciate as a result of Prop 64,” he added, referring to the state’s recreational marijuana provision.

A comparable rush could shortly be under way in Maine, where the state is currently recounting votes after a recreational marijuana ballot measure narrowly passed.

Before the measure was proposed, a 60,000-square-foot former tire distribution center near Portland, Maine, sat empty for years. This spring, an investor closed on the warehouse for $30 per square foot, well below the going rate for the area, and started upgrading the power, water, and ventilation systems in a speculative bet that a new marijuana law would spark a wave of demand from growing operations.

The investor stands to make a pretty penny if legalization passes. “I think it will work out for him,” said Justin Lamontagne, a partner at NAI the Dunham Group, a commercial real estate firm in Portland.

A review of vacant industrial space for sale or lease last spring in the Portland area turns up the former Maine Rubber International tire warehouse in Gorham. That property is no longer available, but its intended use could not be confirmed.


There are good reasons for landlords to charge growers a premium. They must be willing to take on the increased security and neighborhood scrutiny that comes with leasing to a cannabis business.

There’s a hodgepodge of rules governing where cannabis operations can be located. Growers require high-end power, water, and HVAC systems. And while non-cannabis tenants can rent from just about anyone, cannabis tenants are typically forced to rent from landlords who own their buildings outright.

Landlords who finance their buildings through a federally insured bank could be in legally murky water if they choose to rent to a cannabis tenant because the plant is still illegal under federal law. As a result, landlords demand higher rent from a cannabis venture than from, say, a paper company.

The short supply of viable real estate has been a boon for investors who can pay cash and tolerate the risk. In Oregon, all-cash investors rushed into buy 10,000- to 30,000-square-foot buildings in 2014, Brooks said, with the plan of renting them to cannabis companies upon legalization. Investors did the same in Colorado, said Paul Kluck, first vice president at CBRE, where growers paid up to 10 times the going market rate for first-rate industrial spaces.

The scarcity of space has led some marijuana businesses to plow profits back into real estate, said Amanda Gonzalez, chief executive officer of Kaya Cannabis in Denver. “Owning your real estate is crucial,” she said. “I think it’s more crucial because the laws change so frequently. You feel particularly vulnerable.”


While the ballot measure victories in November offered good news for cannabis businesses and their landlords, it also offered a cause for caution. President-elect Donald Trump offered qualified support for legalization while on the campaign trail, positing that medical marijuana “should happen” and that laws regarding recreational usage should be left in the hands of the states. But U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican whom Trump tapped for U.S. attorney general, has been an outspoken opponent of marijuana laws.

As usual, the outlook for the legal weed business is unclear. Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization that advocates against legalization, has suggested that the appointment should halt new investment in the industry. The National Cannabis Industry Association quickly issued a statement reminding Sessions that while he is anti marijuana, he is pro states rights.

So far, it’s business as usual. Abbott said he is plowing ahead with his expansion into Portland, Oregon, confident that the ballot measures will hold, regardless of who holds executive office. On the opposite coast, broker Lamontagne said investors remain bullish on the Portland, Maine, industrial real estate market, despite Sessions’s views on pot.

“That’s not on my radar at all,” said Lamontagne in an e-mail. “Perhaps it should be!”

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 16:53:39 +0000
Final defense bill requires military to supply recruits with U.S.-made footwear Wed, 30 Nov 2016 17:51:37 +0000 The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes a requirement that the Department of Defense provide military recruits with American-made shoes, a provision long sought by footwear manufacturer New Balance, which employs 900 in Maine.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District – had championed the change and announced its presence in the authorization act Wednesday. The provision could lead to a military contract for New Balance, which operates Maine manufacturing plants in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway.

The provision is expected to be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in the next few days, and implemented over the next two years.

Collins, King and Poliquin trumpeted the rule change as a win for American jobs and U.S. manufacturing.

In a written statement, CEO Rob DeMartini said New Balance is “the only major company that still makes athletic footwear in the United States.” He thanked the lawmakers for their efforts “on behalf of the hundreds of men and women in our five New England shoe factories.”

“We are grateful that the U.S. House and Senate has again agreed that our military’s domestic purchasing requirements as stated by law need to be followed,” DeMartini said.

The three lawmakers say the change essentially subjects footwear to the Berry Amendment, the 1941 legislation that requires the Department of Defense to give preference to American products.

The provision included in the final 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is similar to the Buy American Act introduced by Collins and King and the Stepping up for American Workers and Troops Act introduced by Poliquin, according to a news release. Both of those bills were introduced this year.

Previous language in the act allowed the Department of Defense to bypass the Berry Amendment. The department has said that no U.S.-made athletic shoes complied with Berry’s requirements, one of which is that all elements used in making the shoe are U.S. products.

In 2014, the Department of Defense promised to start providing recruits with U.S.-made athletic shoes if the shoes complied with the requirements, and in 2015 New Balance said it had developed a shoe that did comply.

This year, the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate approved changing the act to force the Department of Defense to comply with the Berry Amendment. Around the same time, Collins took the opportunity during a Department of Defense budget review to tell Defense Secretary Ashton Carter she was disappointed in the department’s continuing refusal to comply with the Berry Amendment.

In Wednesday’s news release, the Maine lawmakers said they will “relentlessly push the Department of Defense to fully implement this already overdue provision.”

]]> 0, 01 Dec 2016 00:08:52 +0000
OPEC shows newfound unity, agrees to cut oil output for first time in 8 years Wed, 30 Nov 2016 16:42:51 +0000 VIENNA — Breaking with years of inaction, OPEC agreed Wednesday to cut its oil output for the first time since 2008. The move effectively scraps its strategy of squeezing U.S. competition through high supply that had backfired by lowering prices and draining the cartel’s own economies.

The reduction of 1.2 million barrels a day is significant, leaving OPEC’s daily output at 32.5 million barrels. And OPEC President Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Sada said non-OPEC nations are expected to pare an additional 600,000 barrels a day off their production.

The combined cut will result, at least in the short term, in somewhat more pricey oil – and, by extension, car fuel, heating and electricity. The international benchmark for crude jumped 8.3 percent, or $3.86, to $50.24 on Wednesday.

In the longer term, however, analysts say it’s highly unlikely that oil will return to the highs of around $100 a barrel last seen two years ago. That’s partly because President-elect Donald Trump has promised to free up more oil drilling in the U.S., which would increase global supply. Demand is also not recovering as the world economy sags.

Playing tribute to “a historic moment,” Al-Sada said Wednesday’s move “will definitely balance the market and help (in) reducing the stock overhang.”

Al-Sada said the OPEC cutback is to take effect Jan. 1, with consultations planned on the exact timing of the non-OPEC reductions. Russia alone is committed to taking 300,000 barrels a day off the market.

With the production cut, OPEC will not only benefit from gaining more dollars per barrel. It can also lay claim once again to playing a part in influencing world prices.

And its tentative alliance with Russia and other non-OPEC nations may give it – and them – additional clout in future competition for market share with U.S. producers, which are sure to return in increasing numbers if crude prices move upward.

Wednesday’s decision was a departure from years of infighting among members refusing to give up their market share and a resulting series of inconclusive meetings.

In another reflection of new-found discipline within the cartel, Al-Sada said Indonesia’s membership had been suspended after it refused to accept its share of proposed output cuts, reducing the number of OPEC countries to 13.

Part of the focus after Wednesday’s decision is how well it holds. OPEC gave up assigning quotas in part because members have ignored them in their quest for petrodollars.

But officials were displaying new confidence. In comments addressed to naysayers about his organization’s relevance, Al-Sada said its decision “means the weight of OPEC and the resiliency of OPEC is still there and it will continue to be there.”

“Today’s unity is a very explicit sign about the position of OPEC,” he said.

Meetings to turn the planned non-OPEC cuts into reality are planned soon in Doha. From Moscow, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak confirmed his country’s readiness to pare 300,000 barrels from its output.

Al-Sada said the OPEC cutbacks are in effect for six months, with the option of renewal after a review by a five-nation committee set up to monitor compliance.

Still, analysts suggested price upswings would be relatively moderate – and the fallout minimal, at least for the United States. Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said oil should rise to an average of $53 a barrel next year.

For the U.S. economy, that’s “a sweet spot … a high-enough price to spur investment in the energy industry but not enough to seriously drain purchasing power” of consumers, he said.

“The losers are Europe and Japan – oil-importing regions of the world” with barely growing economies, Guatieri said.

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 20:48:01 +0000
Portland Buy Local hires first executive director Wed, 30 Nov 2016 16:01:23 +0000 An organization that supports locally owned and independent businesses in Portland has hired its first executive director.

Jenn Thompson will lead Portland Buy Local, first established 10 years ago.

Thompson first joined Portland Buy Local in April 2015 as the organization’s ambassador, and then became its program manager, according to a news release announcing the appointment. Before her work with Portland Buy Local, Thompson was program manager for the Portland Maine Farmers’ Market. A Maine native, she moved back to Portland two years ago after coordinating food security programs in southeastern Ohio.

Her experience working with farmers is what initially sparked her interest in helping business owners strengthen local economic systems.

“As Portland’s economy continues to grow, the connectedness of the local business community is more important now than ever,” Thompson said in the release. “Our local businesses are vital to the strength and character of Portland and play an important role in the future of our city.”

She intends to engage more members in the nonprofit’s programs, expand membership benefits and collaborate more with the city and other organizations.

Portland Buy Local has nearly 500 business, nonprofit and individual members.

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 20:08:13 +0000
SEC charges ex-Maine developer Liberty hid funds to slash size of settlement fine Wed, 30 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Federal securities officials want former Portland developer Michael A. Liberty to pay all of a nearly $6 million fine that he accepted in a settlement, six years after he said he was too deeply in debt to shell out the full amount.

Liberty, who pleaded guilty Monday in a separate Maine case to making illegal campaign contributions, is challenging the Securities and Exchange Commission’s demand that he pay the remaining $5.4 million of the fine for allegedly defrauding investors, including three government pension funds. He had previously paid $600,000 after convincing a court that he was unable to pay all of it.

Liberty, who grew up in Gray and now lives in Florida, agreed to settle the SEC allegations in 2010 without admitting or denying guilt. The SEC said Liberty improperly diverted more than $9 million of a $100 million venture capital fund established by Liberty to himself or associates, including $4.5 million for his personal benefit.

The fund also lost $18 million in failed investments that the SEC said were improperly directed by Liberty. Investors in the fund included the pension funds for public employees in the city of Philadelphia and the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

In the unrelated campaign funding case, federal prosecutors have recommended that Liberty, 56, be fined up to $40,000 and be sentenced to six months in jail after he admitted that he arranged for employees, family members and others to make campaign contributions in a 2012 presidential primary, then reimbursed them as a way to evade individual limits on political contributions. The presidential candidate was not disclosed. Liberty made personal contributions to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2011 and 2012.


Liberty is best known in Maine for his real estate developments in the 1980s, including two office towers at 100 Middle St. in Portland and the Chandler’s Wharf waterfront condominiums. But his proposal for a huge office and retail project on Long Wharf led to a referendum to restrict the waterfront to marine-uses-only development, and Liberty was often portrayed as a symbol of development run amok in the city.

In the SEC case, after agreeing in 2010 to the fine of nearly $6 million, Liberty told the SEC his net worth was negative $29 million, so the judge in the case cut the fine to $600,000, with a stipulation that Liberty’s financial reports had to be truthful.

In September, the SEC filed a motion saying that Liberty hid money and lied about being deeply in debt. The motion said Liberty was spending lavishly during the period he claimed a negative net worth. He also bragged at the time to potential investors that his stock in Mozido, a Texas-based startup founded by Liberty that focused on mobile phone payment technology, was worth $127 million, the SEC said.

“The commission now seeks to ensure that violating the securities laws does not remain profitable for Liberty,” the SEC said in its filing with a federal court in Philadelphia. The venture capital fund that Liberty founded, Keystone Venture, was based in Pennsylvania and had raised $100 million, much of it from the pension funds, for investments in technology companies.

Liberty’s Philadelphia lawyer, Jay Dubow, said “the SEC is just wrong” in its allegations and that Liberty was telling the truth about his financial condition at the time.

In a counter-filing, Dubow said Liberty hired a forensic accounting firm that “engaged in a meticulous and time-consuming process” to develop a report for the court on his financial situation and that Liberty gave the company access to his financial records. The report said Liberty had about $2 million in annual living expenses and “frequently borrowed funds from friends and other sources” to cover loans and expenses.


According to the SEC filing, Liberty doesn’t have personal bank accounts and instead uses limited liability companies to pay his personal expenses, along with Xanadu Partners, a fund that the SEC says Liberty set up as a trust for his children. That allows Liberty to conceal how much money he has and protect it from creditors, the SEC alleges.

The SEC says Liberty steered millions into Xanadu and then told his financial officers to keep his involvement with the account secret because of “legal issues I’ve had,” according to an email that the commission said Liberty sent to a business associate. The SEC said Liberty never disclosed his funds in Xanadu to the SEC at the time of the settlement, but deposited nearly $25 million in Xanadu accounts over the course of a little more than two years, ultimately spending it or transferring it to banks, including several in Maine.

Liberty’s financial filing with the court said Xanadu had no value, the SEC alleges, but his lawyers said that is because the fund was established for his children and Liberty received no financial benefit from it.

The SEC said it was difficult to track Liberty’s spending.

“The expenses in the Xanadu checking account range from the mundane (Rite-Aid, Toys ‘R Us, Starbucks, Best Buy, Publix) to luxury travel (tens of thousands of dollars at the Beverly Hills Hotel, St. Regis and Mandarin Oriental, among other brands), to cars (over $25,000 paid to Mercedes Benz),” the SEC said. “Liberty spent tens of thousands of dollars on restaurants and food at a time he proclaimed to be insolvent.”

The filings note that in May 2009, while Liberty was asserting to the SEC that his net worth had deteriorated, he and his wife spent over $33,000, a typical amount, on the Visa card issued to Xanadu. In June of that year, he charged $45,000 on the Xanadu Visa, including for two separate stays at the St. Regis Hotel in Atlanta and a $2,700 canoe.

The SEC called Liberty’s use of the Xanadu accounts “a shell game,” pointing out that millions were moved from those accounts to banks.

“What was all this money used for?” the SEC filing asked. “That question remains unanswered, but what is certain is that Liberty utterly failed to provide the commission with fair and complete disclosure of his finances.

“Liberty exclaims in his email that ‘Money never sleeps, baby!’ and it’s clear that neither do his various accounts,” the SEC filing said.


Dubow said Liberty disclosed all of the financial entities he owned or had money in at the time of the settlement, and that the spending referenced by the SEC occurred after the settlement was reached. Dubow’s court filing said that in the financial reports submitted to the court at the time of the settlement, Liberty freely admitted that he spent a lot on living expenses.

Dubow also said the value of the Mozido stock that Liberty mentioned reflected investments that had been made in the company, not the actual market value of the stock if Liberty had tried to sell it.

The SEC is expected to file a response in December, Dubow said, and after that the judge could rule on the SEC motion or schedule a hearing. Besides the $5.4 million, the SEC is also seeking unspecified civil penalties.


]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 08:05:55 +0000
Downtown Biddeford’s all abuzz, but the parking’s a buzzkill Wed, 30 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 It’s been four years since a trash incinerator was removed from downtown Biddeford, ushering in a new phase of redevelopment for the former mill town once dubbed “Trashtown USA.”

Sprawling brick mills are being transformed into housing, retail and industrial spaces. New shops have opened on Main Street. And a burgeoning restaurant scene is gaining regional and national attention.

But the land where the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator once stood sits empty, save for a small section used as a parking lot.

The former Maine Energy property – an 8.5-acre riverfront parcel on Lincoln Street – is championed by city officials as a prime development spot that could further propel the city’s revitalization. They’re confident Biddeford can attract a significant development project for the site, but say the city first needs to address the lack of downtown parking that has kept some employers away. City officials say two companies recently opted not to move to the city because of parking concerns, decisions that cost Biddeford about 700 jobs.

“We’re at a crossroads. To maximize development and stabilize taxes, we have to have the parking infrastructure downtown,” Mayor Alan Casavant said. “It’s not a question of doing nothing. We absolutely have to do something in terms of parking.”

Discussions about how to provide more parking downtown and in the mill district have popped up regularly since 2012, when the City Council voted to buy the Maine Energy property for $6.65 million from parent company Casella Waste Systems. When city leaders first broached the idea of building a parking garage a short time later, some residents bristled at the idea, saying it was something private developers should pay for, not the city. Opponents even led a successful push for a referendum to ban parking meters downtown because meters had been mentioned by city officials as part of a parking management plan that would include a parking garage.

Now, the City Council is taking its first significant step forward on the parking matter by issuing a request for proposals for the location and design of a downtown parking garage. It will be up to the City Council to decide if a parking garage will be built and where it would be located.

City Councilor Marc Lessard said building a parking garage will provide opportunities for more businesses to move to Biddeford and can be paid for by revenue from the garage.

“This is a good tactic to look to for further revitalization of the downtown,” he said during a council meeting this month.

Developers who are investing in Biddeford say it is critical for the City Council to approve a parking garage so that further redevelopment isn’t stymied by the shortage of spaces.

“There’s no way all the mills can be redeveloped and filled with tenants, whether it be housing or office space or light manufacturing businesses, without more parking being available,” said developer Nathan Szanton, whose $15 million Lofts at Saco Falls opened in September adjacent to the Maine Energy property. “It would be a very savvy move for the city to build a parking structure.”

But opponents, including a member of the citizen watchdog group Concerned Citizens of Biddeford, say the city shouldn’t be on the hook for the $7 million or more it would cost to build a parking garage that may benefit a limited part of the city.


Before Maine Energy closed, city officials and developers said the presence of a trash incinerator in the middle of the 35-acre mill district was a wet blanket on development. The city fielded complaints about trash trucks, odors and emissions from the company’s smokestacks.

Almost immediately after Maine Energy closed in December 2012, developers began buying property and announcing new projects. More than $65 million in new projects has been completed or is under way, including a $50 million housing project in the former Lincoln Mill.

Szanton announced the Lofts at Saco Falls shortly after the City Council voted to buy the Maine Energy property.

“That changed overnight with the MERC decision and we got under contract almost right away,” he said. “It had an immediate and drastic effect.”

The Lofts at Saco Falls has 80 units, 70 of which were already rented when the building opened in September. The last 10 apartments were rented within a week, primarily to people moving to Biddeford from Portland and other southern Maine towns. The Lofts at Saco Falls rents 80 parking spots on the Maine Energy property from the city and would shift those spots to a parking garage if one is built.

Developer Doug Sanford, credited with leading the way with mill redevelopment in the city over the past decade, has invested more than $5.6 million since 2012 in the Pepperell Mill Campus, creating at least 125 new jobs and absorbing more than 150,000 square feet of vacant space.


Downtown commercial buildings are selling, on average, nearly 59 percent above assessed value, generating $38.3 million in new value and $716,000 in additional property tax, according to data compiled by the city. Residential properties in that area are selling for 12 percent above assessed value, adding $14.5 million in additional value and $287,000 in taxes.

“All those different businesses and entities were improbable before Maine Energy,” Casavant said. “The removal of Maine Energy completely changed the landscape, not just physically but also psychologically in making investors believe this area has potential.”

Daniel Stevenson, the city’s economic development director, said the large projects, coupled with the opening of new restaurants and shops, show that the City Council’s decision to buy the Maine Energy property is now paying off, even if the property has yet to be redeveloped. Stevenson said city officials believe the property is a desirable location for redevelopment, but initial talks with businesses and developers always include questions about parking. Businesses looking to move to Biddeford and developers interested in investing there want certainty when it comes to parking, he said.

This year, two companies decided not to move to the mill district because there was not enough parking available, City Manager Jim Bennett said, declining to name the companies because they haven’t made public announcements about their relocations. One company would have brought more than 450 jobs, while the other had about 250, he said. Both had average salaries of $50,000 and each decided to locate elsewhere in southern Maine.

“We think if there was long-term certainty and solutions, those dynamics may have been different,” Bennett said.

Tony McDonald, a broker and partner with CBRE The Boulos Company, said parking is a necessary part of an office or residential development climate, particularly in a rural state where there is limited public transportation.

“I don’t think any sane developer would make an investment without knowing parking was available,” he said. “They don’t have to necessarily own it or control it, but it has to be there so their tenants can find a place to park.”


The city’s growing interest as a destination and the demand for downtown housing also are indicators that demand for parking will continue to grow, Bennett said.

The latest Census data shows the city is now the fastest-growing community in Maine for people under 30. The median age in Biddeford is 34, significantly lower than the median ages of 42.7 for Portland and 43.5 for the state as a whole.

Bennett said many of those people are young professionals who are driven out of the Portland market by high housing prices or who want to live in an up-and-coming urban environment.

“I think there’s a certain buzz here,” Bennett said. “The community has a raw ‘it’ factor that’s attracting people to the city.”

Stacy Cooper, owner of Biscuits & Co. on Alfred Street, hears and sees that buzz regularly. She opened her restaurant two years ago after winning a business startup incentive contest co-sponsored by the city. Foot traffic and business has continued to increase since Biscuits & Co. opened, especially as other new businesses open and more people move to the area, she said. “When people get here, they discover there is a lot going on,” she said.

Casavant, the mayor, believes locals are starting to notice the changes downtown and says people now tell him they understand the need for more parking. But he recognizes there may still be resistance to the idea of the city building a parking garage instead of relying on a private developer to do it. City councilors and staff say the garage would not be funded in a way that raises property taxes, instead relying on revenue generated by the garage to pay debt service on the project.

“This is a significant vote for the city. No one will vote for a parking garage that will raise taxes,” Casavant said.

Howard Hanson, a Biddeford resident, urged the City Council during its Nov. 16 meeting to really think about how a parking garage would impact taxpayers before moving forward.

“We have a tax rate right now that’s getting into the stratosphere,” he said. “To put another burden right now onto the people who pay taxes in this city is going to be very difficult. I think we need to have a lot of clarity before you even vote on this.”

Bennett said proposals are due by Dec. 16, when the council will begin the process of looking at the best location to build a garage he estimates could cost $7.8 million to $14 million. City councilors will not make any decisions about the parking garage before January and – if they approve a garage – a construction bid wouldn’t be awarded until summer. Nevertheless, Bennett is optimistic about the path the city is on.

“All the pieces are starting to align,” he said.


]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 18:17:05 +0000
Cyber Monday sales rise 12 percent, but Black Friday also a big day online Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:32:59 +0000 Cyber Monday barely retained its status as the biggest online spending day of the year after a surge of shoppers hit computers and phones instead of stores on Black Friday to chase deals earlier in the season.

Online spending on Monday rose 12 percent to a record $3.45 billion, according to Adobe Systems. Black Friday almost caught up, with $3.34 billion spent online, a gain of 21.6 percent from a year ago and another record.

The narrowing gap highlights the capitulation of brick-and-mortar stores to the spending habits of their shoppers, who prefer the convenience of scouting deals from home to the challenge of battling fellow consumers at a store for limited bargains. Wal-Mart Stores, Target and department stores have joined to offer online deals earlier in the holiday shopping season rather than saving their best prices for those who go to the stores on select days such as Black Friday.

“More and more people would rather have that time back in their day to spend with family rather than driving somewhere, parking and fighting crowds,” said David Spitz, chief executive officer of ChannelAdvisor Corp., which helps nearly 3,000 merchants sell on Amazon, EBay, Wal-Mart and other online marketplaces. “It’s what’s driving the long-term trend of e-commerce. It’s convenient and puts hours back in shoppers’ lives.”

E-commerce sales in November and December will grow 17.2 percent to $94.7 billion, more than five times the pace of total retail sales growth of 3.3 percent, according to EMarketer.

Amazon lured shoppers with 50-inch televisions for $145, half-price select Nerf toys and Play-Doh items and $40 off its popular voice-activated Echo personal assistant. Wal-Mart and Target responded with their own deals on electronics and video games. Wal-Mart reported orders through its mobile app with in-store pickup were up 150 percent.

Cyber Monday traditionally relied on shoppers returning to work and using fast internet connections to get holiday gifts.

Online sales totaled $1.93 billion on Thanksgiving, up 11.5 percent from a year earlier. And it turns out EBay was on to something with its newly minted “Mobile Wednesday,” the day before Thanksgiving when it expected travelers to shop from the road. Online spending increased 19 percent that day to $1.57 billion, according to Adobe.

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 08:09:23 +0000
For-profit colleges predict 
rosier ride under Trump Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:32:14 +0000 BOSTON — After nearing collapse under the Obama administration, the for-profit college industry is celebrating Donald Trump’s election as a chance for a rebound.

As stock prices for some of the nation’s largest college chains have surged, industry lobbyists say they have received a warm welcome from Trump’s transition team and already have launched a campaign to rebrand the embattled industry as a key to the new president’s plan for economic growth.

While Trump has yet to detail his education plan, some in the for-profit sector see the president-elect as an ally who has championed the private sector and promised to roll back many of President Barack Obama’s regulations.

Industry lobbyists hope those include federal “gainful employment” rules, which can cut funding to academic programs whose graduates struggle to pay off student debt, and new borrower defense rules that can force financially unstable schools to put up large sums of money to cover student loans if the school fails.

“Unfortunately, the focus in the last eight years has been fighting for survival from an ideological administration that was opposed to our very existence, and hopefully that is a fight we will no longer have to wage,” said Steve Gunderson, president of the industry lobbying group Career Education Colleges and Universities and a former Republican congressman.

Gunderson said that early conversations with Trump’s transition team showed promise for a smoother relationship with the White House.

“They absolutely see a place for postsecondary career education which is not exclusively constructed around just four-year liberal-arts programs,” Gunderson said.

Trump’s transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

The for-profit college industry has suffered steep enrollment losses since 2010. Many schools blame Obama, whose administration has cracked down on schools accused of fraud and added new regulations that officials say were meant to protect students from abuse.

In September, the ITT Technical Institute chain shut down after the federal government mostly barred it from enrolling new students as a sanction for academic troubles. A month later, the Apollo Education Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, told investors that it might not survive the policies of another Democratic president.

Trump, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, spoke little about for-profit colleges during his campaign. His pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is known for promoting charter schools and school vouchers but has less of a track record when it comes to higher education. DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, critics expect that Trump will loosen the reins on for-profit colleges, and some see parallels between those schools and the Republican’s now-defunct Trump University. This month, Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle three fraud lawsuits filed against his Trump University real-estate seminars, although he didn’t admit fault.

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said it’s revealing that the industry is celebrating someone accused of misconduct “that resembles the worst practices of that industry.”

But Miller and other critics doubt the sector will see a major rebound because its image has already been tarnished.

To repair its reputation, Gunderson’s group is rebranding the industry as a key to Trump’s plan for economic growth. This month, the schools Gunderson represents promised to train 5 million skilled workers over the next decade, echoing Trump’s promise to create 25 million jobs in that span.


“Our sector needs to reintroduce ourselves to the policymakers,” Gunderson said.

Four-year for-profit colleges enrolled an estimated 1.1 million undergraduates in spring 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit research group.

The DeVry Education Group said in a statement that it will work with the administration and “offer suggestions and reforms.” Shares in the parent company of DeVry University jumped 30 percent in the weeks after Trump’s election, to their highest value in more than a year.

Other for-profit colleges declined to comment.

Students who attend for-profit colleges are typically older and poorer than their peers at four-year universities, and more often they’re minorities, according to federal data. Industry backers say that’s because for-profit schools offer accelerated programs with flexible schedules for working adults. Opponents say it’s because they lure low-income students with aggressive tactics.

A study released by the Education Department this month found that graduates of public colleges earned an average of $9,000 a year more than their counterparts at for-profit colleges. Gunderson’s group countered with another study projecting that the sector could produce 8.5 million professionals over the next decade.

Those offering recent support to the industry include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close adviser to Trump who is making a case to be the president-elect’s strategic planner. At a recent event in Dallas for Gunderson’s group, Gingrich urged the next administration to embrace for-profit schools in its education plan.

“They have an opportunity to try to create a movement, to create 8.5 million new jobs, which gets precisely at what Donald Trump has been campaigning on,” Gingrich said in an interview.

Gingrich, who is personal friends with Gunderson, added that he believes some of Obama’s major regulations targeting the industry will be scaled back.

“I expect them to be dramatically modified,” Gingrich said. “They were impossible to administer and they simply set up rules designed to force schools into bankruptcy.”

]]> 0, 29 Nov 2016 21:18:23 +0000
Maine regulators expand investigation of FairPoint’s service quality Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:13:54 +0000 AUGUSTA — State utility regulators are expanding an investigation of FairPoint Communications for failing to meet minimum service standards for landline customers.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission has been considering a $500,000 fine against FairPoint for failing to meet standards in 2014 and 2015. FairPoint had asked regulators not to open an investigation into standards that it failed to meet this year and has contended the metrics are unattainable and unnecessary in the fast-evolving telecom industry.

Commissioners agreed Tuesday to expand their investigation to the second quarter of 2016. A state law that went into effect last summer set service quality standards that FairPoint calls more reasonable.

Commissioner Mark Vannoy said the investigation likely will conclude next spring.

“The failures here are similar to past failures and appear to replicate an ongoing pattern regarding service quality,” Vannoy said. “The reasons for the poor performance are similar to those made by FairPoint to explain prior quarters’ poor performance.”

FairPoint Communications Inc., which is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and provides telephone service in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, contends cyberattacks, bad weather and a four-month strike contributed to service problems in 2014 and 2015. In an August letter about problems this year, a FairPoint spokesman told commissioners the company failed to meet “unreasonably high” standards for clearing up troubles within 24 hours and unmet installation appointments.

The representative said the measures are “impossible to sustain” because of the large company’s number of installations and the fact it manages its personnel based on “customer appointments, not the 24-hour clock.”

FairPoint did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The company has asked regulators to refrain from opening a formal investigation and imposing “a second layer” of penalties. The representative said if consumers think service quality is bad, the market will punish FairPoint.

The Maine Legislature this year passed a compromise law that lifts a requirement for FairPoint to provide landline access to 22 large communities where there’s adequate competition. The requirement still covers about 150 other communities.

FairPoint this month announced it is laying off at least 110 workers across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont because of a downturn in its traditional telephone service.

]]> 0 Wed, 30 Nov 2016 08:07:15 +0000
Dozens across U.S. arrested as protesters seek $15-per-hour wage Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:04:39 +0000 CHICAGO — Dozens of people were arrested Tuesday as they participated in protests nationwide for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Fast-food restaurant workers and home and child-care workers rallied in cities including Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. In many cities the protesters blocked busy intersections.

In Chicago, hundreds of protesters at O’Hare International Airport chanted outside terminals: “What do we want? $15! When do we want it? Now!” Police gated an area to allow travelers room to walk. As many as 500 workers at the airport participated in an unfair labor practices strike, according to officials from Service Employees International Union Local 1

“We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re asking for decent treatment. We’re asking for decent wages,” said Kisha Rivera, an airplane cabin cleaner at O’Hare. “We’re demanding respect.”

Thousands planned to walk off the job at McDonald’s restaurants, organizers said. The efforts are part of the National Day of Action to Fight for $15.

In New Jersey, airport workers marched between two terminals at Newark Liberty International Airport. Democratic Mayor Ras Baraka has called on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour at its facilities and take steps to hire more Newark residents.

At a McDonald’s in Denver, about 100 people, including about 60 striking fast food workers from around the metro area, picketed. Protesters briefly shut down a downtown St. Louis McDonald’s restaurant, blocking the drive-thru for about 30 minutes. In Massachusetts, a state senator was among nearly three dozen people arrested after they sat down on a Cambridge street during a demonstration.

About 25 of the 350 protesters in New York City arrested. One protester, Flavia Cabral, 55, struggles to make ends meet with two part-time jobs.

“All these people don’t have savings because we’re working check to check,” Cabral said. “We have to decide what we are going to get: We’re going to pay rent or we’re going to put food on the table or we’re going to send my child to school.”

Detroit police say they arrested about 40 protesters who blocked traffic. In the San Francisco Bay Area, ride-hailing drivers, fast-food employees, airport workers and others shut down an Oakland intersection.

Raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12 would lift pay for 35 million people, or about 1 in 4 employees nationwide, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

The conservative-leaning, nonprofit Employment Policies Institute think tank said it believes wage increases will result in lost jobs, reduced hours and business closures.

]]> 0, 30 Nov 2016 08:09:13 +0000
Anthem, Cigna CEOs clash amid merger effort Tue, 29 Nov 2016 23:39:59 +0000 The deep rift between merging health insurance companies Cigna Corp. and Anthem Inc. came further into public view Tuesday when transcripts of testimony from both companies’ chief executives were unsealed during a U.S. antitrust trial in Washington.

Cigna CEO David Cordani, who has publicly defended the plan, revealed his doubts about whether the merger will benefit his company under questioning by the Justice Department, which has sued to block the deal. And Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish disclosed that his company had created a secret team to plan its integration while keeping Cigna executives in the dark because of their lack of cooperation.

Both executives testified in a closed courtroom Nov. 22. Their testimony was unsealed Monday and released Tuesday.

Cordani told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson that his company stopped work on the $48 billion merger when faced with the Justice Department’s July lawsuit. By that time his company was already confronting an Anthem integration and rebranding strategy called “Bias Blue,” which in his view would weaken Cigna by shifting members to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a network of insurers that includes Anthem.

Those concerns were outlined in a letter included in the transcript from Cigna general counsel Nicole Jones to Anthem general counsel Tom Zielinski.

“Your approach to the regulatory strategy, when coupled with your approach to integration and other matters, appear to be designed to cause commercial harm to Cigna while simultaneously strengthening your fellow Blues,” Jones wrote.

The clash between the two executives undercuts one of Anthem’s key arguments in favor of the deal: that combining with Cigna will lead to more efficient operations, which will lower costs for customers. The government counters that the hostility between the two will prevent them from successfully integrating.

At stake is the $1.85 billion breakup fee that Anthem must pay Cigna if the deal is blocked on antitrust grounds. Anthem won’t have to pay if it proves Cigna committed a “willful breach” of the agreement.

When asked about a newspaper advertisement placed by Anthem the day after the U.S. lawsuit, which said the merger would bring greater benefits and choice to consumers, Cordani said he disagreed because in his view the deal would narrow consumer choice by weakening Cigna offerings.

Cordani also rejected Anthem’s estimate that the merger could generate some $2 billion in savings for self-insured employer customers because the analysis was only focused on opportunities to generate discounts.

“We view that it is, at best, incomplete and, therefore, inaccurate,” Cordani said.

In his testimony, Swedish conceded that his company had created a team to plan the insurers’ integration but kept it secret from Cigna, prompting the judge to ask him, “How do you work on integration without talking to the person you’re integrating with?”

“Very good question,” Anthem’s CEO responded, explaining that the move was prompted by Cigna’s decision to stop work on the merger.

“We wanted to proceed and they didn’t want it, and so we decided to continue, knowing that they would come back in when the time was right for them,” Swedish said, according to the transcript.

Spokesmen for both companies declined to comment on the unsealed testimony.

Citing too much concentration in the health insurance market, the Justice Department has also sued to stop Aetna Inc. from combining with Humana Inc. That Washington federal court trial starts before a different judge next Monday.

]]> 0 Tue, 29 Nov 2016 23:08:40 +0000
After success in Texas, McDonald’s expanding test of fresh beef burgers Tue, 29 Nov 2016 23:34:51 +0000 CHICAGO — McDonald’s said Tuesday it is expanding a test of fresh beef burgers after a trial run in Texas got a positive response. The world’s largest burger chain’s experimentation is part of its effort to change the public’s perception of its food quality and freshness.

The fresh beef test, which had been at 55 restaurants across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, now has expanded to include 75 restaurants across northeast Oklahoma. The test of never-frozen beef only includes Quarter Pounder patties, not the smaller patties that come on hamburgers and Big Macs.

Fresh beef represents a huge opportunity for McDonald’s but also a substantial risk. It means a big change to the process of food delivery and preparation.

]]> 0 Wed, 30 Nov 2016 08:08:41 +0000
Maine’s electric rates fall again, but not monthly bills Tue, 29 Nov 2016 21:32:37 +0000 Most Mainers are likely to see the rate they pay for electricity fall again in 2017, but that doesn’t mean their total monthly bills will be much lower.

That’s because while the price of fuel that drives New England’s wholesale electric market has moderated in recent years, the costs of upgrading transmission lines and building new power plants is trending upward.

Despite that, Maine’s relatively flat costs contrast with other New England states, where electric bills have gone up 20 percent over the past several years.

That picture was emerging Tuesday after the Maine Public Utilities Commission accepted a bid for supplying energy to homes and small businesses that are served by Emera Maine’s Bangor Hydro District and buy their electricity through the state’s standard offer.

The PUC is set to announce Wednesday which bid it has accepted in Central Maine Power Co.’s service area, and experts anticipate that it will be similar to the Emera-area deal.

The new Emera-area rate, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will be 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour. It represents a decrease of 4.6 percent. For a typical eastern Maine home that uses 500 kilowatt hours a month, that translates into $31.63 a month next year, a savings of $1.52.

This welcome news is offset by Emera’s transmission and distribution costs, which are notably higher than the cost of supplying energy. While the typical monthly supply cost next year will be $31.63, charges for transmission and distribution add up to $56.03, for a total bill of $87.66.

The standard offer is the default rate for customers who don’t sign contracts with a competitive energy provider.

The new rate is only for the energy-supply portion of electricity bills, not the distribution services provided by Emera and CMP. Under Maine’s 17-year-old electric restructuring law, utilities only distribute power, they don’t generate and sell it.


Electricity supply rates in New England are largely dependent on the wholesale cost of natural gas, which is used by power plants to generate roughly half the region’s electricity. Except in 2013 during a cold winter that caused gas prices to spike, supply rates generally have been falling for a decade. They slid from roughly 10 cents per kwh in 2007 to 6.6 cents this year.

For a typical home in southern Maine that uses 550 kilowatt hours of electricity a month, that means the energy portion of the bill has come down from $55 a decade ago to $36.30 this year.

Continued low prices for oil and for liquefied natural gas, which supplements the region’s pipeline supplies, will benefit New England next year, said Rich Silkman, chief executive officer at Competitive Energy Services, a Portland firm that helps companies and institutions manage energy costs.

“We don’t see a whole lot of change in the larger, national gas market,” he said. “We think the market is very stable.”

Against that backdrop, the cost of electricity to power Maine homes has been moving in the right direction.

“Maine has made some modest progress,” said Patrick Woodcock, who heads Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office.

Lowering Maine’s above-average electric rates is a priority for the LePage administration, but current supply cost trends are the result of market forces and state mandates elsewhere, not Maine-centered policies.

Woodcock cited data that shows Maine’s residential electric bills have essentially been stable since 2010. During that time, bills elsewhere in New England have gone up 20 percent, and they rose 10 percent nationwide. That’s because of long-term contracts and the elevated cost of renewable energy in southern New England, he said, as well as the national shift from coal to natural gas.


Woodcock, who is stepping down from his position next month, said Maine could still work to lower supply costs by continuing the push for more natural gas pipeline capacity and by modifying well-meaning policies that encourage renewable energy production, although at a high cost.

But any further dips in energy supply rates will be tempered by recent investments in upgrading transmission lines.

The biggest example is CMP’s five-year, $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program. That cost was spread across New England, but it and other transmission upgrades are the principal driver of increases on CMP’s portion of the electric bill.

For a customer using 550 kilowatt hours a month, CMP’s charges have risen from $36.17 in 2007 to $46.15 this year.

“We do need to invest in the system to keep it reliable,” said Gail Rice, a CMP spokeswoman. “Our bulk transmission system hadn’t seen a lot of love in nearly 40 years.”

An additional factor raising the cost of all power bills in New England is capacity payments. These reflect the price of building new power plants to make sure the grid has enough capacity to meet demand. Several older power plants have closed or are set to shut down. And with energy costs low, power-plant owners receive special payments to make it profitable to be on line.

These market forces are bringing the rates that most Mainers pay for electricity closer to the national average, a goal of the LePage administration.


Taken together, Maine home customers paid an average of 16 cents per kwh in 2016, according to federal statistics. Maine has the lowest residential electric rates in New England, where the average is 18.2 cents per kwh.

But the national average is 12.9 cents. And in Southeast states, where coal and government-subsidized hydro and nuclear power are in the mix, the average residential rate is 10.6 cents.

“It’s not likely we can reduce supply costs more to bring us much closer to the national average,” said Tim Schneider, Maine’s public advocate. “In New England, we are seeing historically low energy prices.”

Maine, Schneider said, is being hurt in two ways by transmission costs. Besides paying some of the highest costs in the country, closings at paper mills and other big manufacturers are spreading the fixed costs over fewer, smaller customers.

“There’s no silver bullet, particularly on transmission costs,” he said.


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