When it comes to taking the pulse of the local economy, Jim Hughes is starting to feel a distinct heart beat.
"It seems like it's coming back a little," the owner and president of Lee's Appliance Inc. in Braceville said when asked if customers are getting their confidence back three years after the Great Recession exploded in their faces. "For a while, if they were looking at washers and dryers, they'd just buy the one that broke. Now, they're getting both."
Consumer spending is critical for Trumbull County's economy, as well as the national economy. Besides pumping money into businesses and workers' pockets, it's expected to generate about half of the county's $42 million budget in 2012.
Tribune Chronicle / Larry Ringler
Steve Boruch, left, sales manager at Lee’s Appliance Inc., talks with president and owner Jim Hughes, center, and Vince Eckart of Hartford in the showroom of the Braceville furniture and appliance store on state Route 5.
The county's 2011 take of $22.2 million was up $1.8 million from 2010, a year when shoppers were still clinging to their coins and worrying about their jobs.
The rising sales tax tide remains in effect - the county has received $3.67 million in the first two months of the year versus $3.42 million in the same period of 2011.
Because of a three-month time lag for the state to collect and send the money to counties, the county's $1.90 million in February reflects actual spending in November.
The tax take indicates a much more confident consumer in that key month, which kicks off the Christmas shopping season.
In fact, the $1.90 million was the best total for a November since the county bumped up its permissive sales tax rate to 1 percent July 1, 2005. For the year, it trailed only $2.20 million in June and $2.02 million in March.
Hughes put the trend into perspective by saying November "was a pretty good month for a lousy year."
He said the store lowered prices and offered specials for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving famed for a shopping blitz that through the years has put retailers "into the black," profit-wise, for the year.
But the recovery remains tenuous. Hughes said manufacturers who supply him expect sales to fall at least 2 percent in 2012. He said he's not as pessimistic locally, thanks partly to full production at the General Motors Co. Lordstown Complex.
"We do a lot of business with their employees," he said.
In terms of months of actual sales, November pushed Trumbull County into its own form of black by lifting it to $21.22 million, better than the 2010 total of $20.96 million.
The total will go even higher once the state reports December sales tax numbers near the end of this month.
Another key economic indicator continued to strengthen. Trumbull County and Warren unemployment dropped to 9.2 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively,in January versus 11.3 percent and 11.2 percent in the year-ago month.
Two indicators struggled. New-vehicle sales in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties dipped 9.9 percent in January to 1,811, although used-vehicle sales inched up 1.3 percent to 2,785.
Housing showed signs of strength in January by rising to 93 units sold in Trumbull County compared to 85 in 2011.
The median price rose to $55,000 from $49,500 in the period. Houses needed 108 total days to sell versus 122 in January 2011.