WASHINGTON — — Key senators reached a tentative agreement Tuesday to save a mail processing center considered significant to the Eastern Shore economy but left the fate of more than a dozen post offices in the Baltimore region uncertain as they considered a sweeping bill to overhaul theU.S. Postal Service.
The underlying bipartisan legislation, which is poised for a vote in the Senate Wednesday, would allow the cash-strapped mail service to inch closer to ending Saturday delivery after a two-year waiting period and also restructure the way it pays retiree health benefits — potentially saving the agency billions of dollars a year.
Wrestling with competition from e-mail and online bill payment options, theU.S. Postal Servicelost $25.4 billion between 2007 and 2011, prompting mail officials to propose deep cuts to services and to facilities that employ thousands of workers across the country, including many in Maryland. The Republican-led House is considering a vastly different bill, setting up a possible showdown later this year.
Senate negotiators reached a preliminary agreement Tuesday to save a mail processing center in Easton — along with more than 100 similar facilities across the country — by requiring the agency to continue to deliver first-class mail to nearby zip codes overnight. The Easton plant, which employs 130 workers, would have to remain open to meet the overnight standard for Eastern Shore homes and businesses.
"We need postal reform, but we need to be smart about how we do it so that we preserve important mail delivery services in our communities," said Sen. Ben Cardin, who, along with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, pressured Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe to reconsider a plan to move the Easton plant's work to Delaware.
Mikulski was one of several senators who met with Donahoe this week to discuss the issue. Cardin and Mikulski, both Maryland Democrats, had proposed amendments to the legislation to save the plant, but withdrew them Tuesday after Donahoe sent the bill's leading sponsors a list of facilities that the service would have to keep open to maintain next-day delivery.
"You're not going to have a healthy postal system unless you have first-rate delivery," Cardin said. "You've got to have timely delivery ... if people are going to be willing to pay first-class postage and use the system."
Closing the Easton plant would take $19 million from the Eastern Shore economy and wipe out $150,000 in annual income tax revenue for local government, according to a study conducted for the local postal workers union this year. It likely would have resulted in slightly slower mail delivery in the region. A Postal Service study found that closing Easton would save about $6 million.
The agreement also means the service is likely to spare a similar facility in Cumberland.
The postal overhaul legislation lists steps that must be taken before post offices can be closed. That may do little to protect post offices in the Baltimore area that are being considered for closure later this year, including the Waverly Station location and the Franklin office in Southwest Baltimore. In all, the postal service has proposed closing nearly 3,700 underperforming offices nationwide, including 10 in Baltimore, Towson and Annapolis.
The Senate bill requires the agency to consider alternatives to shuttering offices, such as reducing hours or services, and mandates that customers affected by a potential closure be surveyed. Those extra regulatory hoops could prevent closures, but the proposal maintains the agency's broad latitude to shut down offices.
Rural post offices would receive a one-year reprieve under an amendment to the bill approved by the Senate Tuesday. A moratorium on closing post offices elsewhere lifts next month.
That has prompted outcries from local officials and advocates who say the offices are vital to neighborhoods.
"The post offices that they are closing down are located in the poorest parts of the city, the ones least able to use the Internet or cell phones for taking care of paying bills," said Tom Dodge, an American Postal Workers Union member from Westminster who is organizing a series of protests on the issue. "The post office is also the heart of most communities."
The Postal Service said last year that the Eastern Shore Processing and Distribution Facility was one of 264 sorting centers nationwide it would study for closure. Easton handles mail for ZIP codes beginning with "216" or "218," an area that runs from Ocean City to Kent County, north of the Bay Bridge.
A sorting center in Cumberland, meanwhile, had been set to be consolidated with a similar facility in Johnstown, Pa. There are about 500 mail-sorting facilities nationwide.
A bitterly divided Congress has left virtually all important legislation in limbo until after the November presidential election. But postal reform is unusual in that support and opposition has not broken along partisan lines. On Tuesday, the measure cleared a key 60-vote procedural hurdle when nine Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the proposal to the floor despite Republican objections.
At the same time, the bill has created intraparty tensions, including between Mikulski and a lead sponsor, Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, who had repeatedly suggested that Easton's work could be moved to his state.