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Don't be surprised if Saturday mail delivery continues well beyond when it is supposed to end in August [Editorial]

Government Postal DeliveryMail Order IndustryNational GovernmentBusinessElectionsFinancial and Business Services

It comes as no surprise that a wholly un-scientific person on the street survey in Bel Air and Havre de Grace last week indicated the reaction to the U.S. Postal Service ceasing Saturday letter deliveries would be no big deal.

No doubt, there are some folks out there whose lives are likely to be affected by this cost-cutting measure. On the whole, however, in the great national debate over what tax money should be spent on, subsidizing the post office so it can provide delivery service on Saturdays is something that should be in the mix for consideration.

For those who haven't followed the situation closely, the Postal Service as it exists today began as an agency prescribed in the U.S. Constitution and gave the national government authority to establish post offices and post roads (hence the common street name Post Road, one of which shows up along the Route 7 corridor in Harford County).

In more recent history, the postal service was turned into more of an arm's length agency a few years ago. These days, it's comparable to Amtrak in that both are theoretically supposed to be run as enterprise funds, which is to say they provide a service people pay for so there should be a way for them to be financially self-sufficient.

It is possible to find examples of government enterprise funds that are fairly successful in terms of providing a service while charging only the users of that service. Public water and sewer systems are obliged under state law in Maryland to be financially self-sufficient and, generally speaking, they are. Water rates vary from place to place, leading to discussions of which ones are better managed. Still, safe drinking water and sanitary sewer systems are in place and operating at reasonable rates across the state.

Amtrak and the Postal Service, however, haven't been especially successful as self-funded government entities. Both are hobbled by issues that relate largely to the politics of constituent services. In the case of the Postal Service, there is also a perk of elected office that makes financial self-sufficiency a tough nut for the agency to crack.

The perk for elected officials is known as the franking privilege, under which the Postal Service is obliged to deliver, at no charge, any correspondence sent out from a senator or U.S. representative bearing that elected official's signature or frank. A lot of mail is delivered courtesy of the franking privilege, much of it around re-election season.

Then there's the matter of post offices. While the Postal Service has long since ceased to be responsible for post roads, it remains responsible for a vast network of post offices. Each resident of Harford County lives in one of 25 postal zones, or ZIP code areas, most of which are wholly within the county. Each postal zone has its own post office building, some inside the county, some in Baltimore County, except for the two Bel Air postal zones, 21014 and 21015, which share a single post office building.

A key argument for obliging the Postal Service to be financially self sufficient is that there are private companies in the parcel delivery businesses that make a good deal of money, and, like those businesses, the Postal Service charges a per piece rate for making deliveries (except deliveries from members of Congress). If private companies can do it, so goes the argument, the Postal Service should be able to do it as well.

Sounds good, but there's not a parcel delivery service in operation that maintains upward of two dozen storefronts to service a population of 240,000 people. That's a big part of the reason the cost of a stamp doesn't cover the cost of delivering the envelope.

Still, a few years back when the Postal Service proposed closing the Cardiff operation, it practically took an act of Congress. Though there was another post office a few blocks away in Delta, Pa., and two others in close proximity in Whiteford and Street, there was something of a public outcry. Eventually, the office ended up being closed, but it took a few years.

It's not surprising, therefore, that proposals to close individual post offices are relatively rare compared to the number of post offices out there.

The Postal Service, however, is not without blame, as evidenced by the recent brouhaha over whether there would be house-to-house mail delivery in the new Bel Air neighborhood of Kelly Glen. The move to not have house-to-house service in the neighborhood, though it possibly could have been justified, was administered in a rather ham-fisted manner. It prompted (not surprisingly) a member of Congress to involve himself. It's hard to imagine a successful business treating its customers the way postal customers were treated in this instance.

The elimination of Saturday mail delivery may be helpful in allowing the Postal Service to approach self-sufficiency, even as postal customers are indifferent to the change. Unfortunately, given that post offices don't need to be within an easy horse and buggy trip of every home, other cuts could be made to help even up the bottom line.

Given the complexities of the situation, the interests of members of Congress and the bureaucratic inertia of the Postal Service, not only is there no reason to expect any further changes being made, also there is a strong possibility that talk of eliminating Saturday delivery will remain just that, nothing but talk.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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