Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion Editorial

Post office closings: Necessary but insufficient

Ten Baltimore area post offices are at risk of closing. They are among 41 in Maryland and 3,700 nationwide that the Postal Service says it can no longer afford to operate, either because they don't have enough patrons or are located near another post office. That's sad news to those who rely on one of them for services or a sense of community. But the sadder news is that as necessary as the Postal Service's announcement was this week, it was also wholly insufficient.

The postal service stands on its own — it does not rely on taxpayer funds, and in a time when technology and competition from private delivery services are cutting into its business, it is in a severe financial pinch. It's annual deficit is $8 billion-$9 billion, and the closures — which still must go through a public comment period and review by the Postal Regulatory Commission — will save a mere $200 million. Some savings, however small, are better than none, Postal Service officials say. That sentiment is right as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Major changes are needed in the way the Postal Service does business.

One approach, put forth in separate bills by Sen. Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, and Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, would allow the Postal Service to tap into billions of dollars of overpayments now in its pension funds. Senator Carper’s bill would allow the USPS to redirect the some of that money to meet a Congressional mandate to pre-pay its retiree health benefits. He argues it would keep the retiree benefits secure and give the Postal Service the funds and the flexibility to make needed improvements and alleviate pressing financial problems.

Critics counter that given the way the Postal Service has been declining, reducing the pension surplus will leave nothing for retirees later.

An alternative approach, championed by California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government, calls for a fundamental restructuring of the Postal Service. His bill would allow the Postal Service to go into default, then gut existing labor agreements. There is a need to rework some parts of these agreements, but throwing them out entirely is a step too far.

A more sensible approach would be to allow the Postal Service to tap the retiree fund in a limited way to help maintain solvency while management sits down with unions and renegotiates burdensome provisions in the labor agreements. The postal workers, after all, have a stake in keeping the postal enterprise thriving, and their wages and benefits account for roughly 80 percent of the Postal Service's expenses.

But even more steps may be necessary. Eliminating Saturday mail delivery has long been considered a possibility, and now it may be time for the Postal Service to finally do it. The move would save the Postal Service anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion a year. It could slow mail delivery by one to two days, but given the plentiful alternatives to the Postal Service, that is manageable.

Any change to the Postal Service is bound to be difficult. People have a strong sentimental attachment to post offices; traditionally they have been civic gathering places and boons to small businesses as well as distributors of the mail.

One ray of hope for customers losing their post office is the possibility that a neighborhood small business, say a grocery store, would take over basic services such as selling stamps, handling flat-rate packages and renting mailboxes. The Postal Service is dubbing these operations "Village Post Offices," but the contract details are yet to be worked out. Moreover, the concept is dependent on a successful retailer being in the vicinity and willing and able to take on the task. That may not happen in neighborhoods that already are in economic distress.

Still, it offers some solace. The post offices that serve as a defining feature of many communities may soon be gone, but with the right reforms, the postal service itself won't be.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Go green with fewer days of mail delivery

    It is time for the U.S. Postal Service to consider home mail delivery only three days a week. Emails and text messaging have far surpassed the delivery of mail. The bulk of current mail consists of advertisements and requests for a multitude of donations.

  • Hogan's Maryland: open for big business
    Hogan's Maryland: open for big business

    Driving home to Baltimore from a meeting with a potential new customer one cold February afternoon, my wife and I chuckled when we crossed the state border. In addition to "Maryland Welcomes You," our state's "Enjoy Your Visit!" sign on Route 15 now read, "We're Open for Business," followed...

  • Calls for a constitutional convention are reckless
    Calls for a constitutional convention are reckless

    There's a right way and a wrong way to amend the United States Constitution, and far too many current state legislators are trying to do it the wrong way: by attempting to call our first constitutional convention since 1787.

  • Supergirl Power
    Supergirl Power

    About a year ago, I walked into Gotham Comics in Westminster with the intention of restarting my comic book collection after letting it lie dormant since the comic book boom of the early 1990s. Upon entering the store I was immediately confused.

  • Bowe Bergdahl [Poll]
    Bowe Bergdahl [Poll]
  • Detente at City Hall
    Detente at City Hall

    Let's have three cheers for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Comptroller Joan Pratt for coming to an agreement on a plan to move forward with the modernization of the city government's telephone system — one for each year that has been wasted in their pointless, petulant feud. The two...

  • City schools' self-inflicted wound
    City schools' self-inflicted wound

    The Sun's report this week that Baltimore City school employees were paid $46 million last year in accrued leave, bonuses, overtime and other benefits is an embarrassment that couldn't come at a more inopportune moment. The department is already facing a $72 million budget deficit next year,...

  • Larry Hogan's big fish story
    Larry Hogan's big fish story

    One expects a certain amount of bluster and prevarication from politicians. It's all part of telling an audience whatever they want to hear. As H.L. Mencken once noted, "if a politician observed he had cannibals among his constituents, he'd promise them missionaries for dinner."