EASTON — — Kathie Jones loses more than patience when the mail is late. She also loses customers.
As the owner of a small business that prepares bulk mail for delivery by the U.S. Postal Service, Jones hears complaints every time a church newsletter or a political ad she sends arrives late — even if the delays are not her fault. If mail is lost, she has to start projects over, sometimes eating the cost.
So Jones is understandably wary about a Postal Service proposal to close the last mail-sorting hub on the Eastern Shore, located a few hundred feet from the Easton Municipal Airport. The agency is studying whether it would save money by consolidating the mail facility with another one in Wilmington, Del.
If that happens, a letter mailed across the street in Easton, for instance, would travel 160 miles before arriving.
"All the mail is going to have to be trucked to a facility in Wilmington and then trucked back down again," said Jones, who opened Blue Heron Mailing 13 years ago and now has two full-time employees and one part-time worker. "It's going to be a mess."
Business owners and residents in Easton are once again fighting plans to shutter the hub, which was threatened with closure in 2010 and again last year. Many residents, including Jones, say the facility is an essential economic link between the mostly rural Shore and the rest of Maryland.
Seniors fear the move would slow delivery of mail-order prescription drugs. The chef of a restaurant in Easton's historic downtown worries about receiving specialty ingredients. Talbot County officials note that the mail center has 126 workers — making it a significant employer in the region.
Closing the plant would take $19 million from the Eastern Shore's economy and would wipe out $150,000 in annual income tax revenue for local governments, according to a recent Sage Policy Group study conducted for the local postal workers union.
"This isn't about how fast you get your postcards from St. Michaels," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has fought past attempts to move the hub and who has promised to do so again this year. "This is really about maintaining the economic vitality of the region."
But to the Postal Service, which is losing billions of dollars a year, the consolidation of Easton and similar processing facilities across the country may be critical to its survival. The agency needs to trim $20 billion from its operating costs by 2015.
An earlier Postal Service study found that closing Easton would save about $6 million.
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's 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.
Of the facilities studied, the Postal Service will close 223, keep 35 open and continue to study six — including the Easton hub. A sorting center in Cumberland will be moved to Johnstown, Pa. Hubs in Gaithersburg and Waldorf will merge into Capitol Heights in Prince George's County. There are about 500 mail-sorting facilities nationwide.
None of the closures will take place before May 15.
Yvette B. Singh, a Postal Service spokeswoman, noted the financial shortfalls the agency has faced as it wrestles with competition from e-mail and online bill payment. The service lost $25.4 billion between 2007 and 2011 because of an 18 percent drop in mail volume as well as spiraling health care costs for retirees.
Singh stressed that the postal system does not receive taxpayer support.
"We're matching our workload to the space that we have," she said. "We're basically trying to utilize our space better."
But the proposal has left Easton residents with questions.
Sitting in the parking lot of Easton's brick post office, 72-year-old Paul Morrissey said he's worried about getting prescription drugs on time. It's usually cheaper to order drugs by mail, but he said his insurance company balks at refills until his current supply has nearly run out.
Morrissey, who lives in nearby Cordova, said he's also worried about the impact on the region's fragile economy. Talbot County's unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, higher than the state's overall 6.6 percent.
"The government's trying to save jobs; now they're going to get rid of a bunch of them," said Morrissey, who is retired. "I'd hate to see people lose their jobs in such a small town."
Stephen Mangasarian, the chef and owner of Banning's Tavern, said he occasionally relies on the mail for specialty ingredients — something he would reconsider if delays became a problem. He said the loss of good-paying jobs could also reduce his supply of customers.
"A hundred and thirty jobs in a town this size is a lot," said Mangasarian, 58. "It cuts into the wallets of people who eat" at the restaurant.
Business owners point to the closing of a sorting hub in Frederick last November; the mail from that facility is now sent to Baltimore. Jones and others have heard stories about Christmas catalogs arriving in January. Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who supports merging Easton into Wilmington, said the Frederick closure led to "major logjams."
Singh acknowledged delays after the Frederick site was closed but said the organization has resolved those issues.
Under their contract, employees at the Easton plant will be offered other jobs if the facility moves. But the offer could be for positions in Wilmington, an unattractive commute for many. Bonnie McCaslin, a 56-year-old Taylors Island resident, said she'd probably have to leave Maryland.
Commuting to Delaware would take her more than two hours each way.
"We'd have to uproot," said McCaslin, who has performed clerical work at the Easton plant for 25 years. "Our whole life is kind of in limbo."
In Washington, the proposal has created an unusual political dynamic that appears to pit two Democratic senators against each other. Carper, a leading voice in Congress on postal reform and the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Postal Service, has publicly pushed for moving Easton's work to his home state.
"Instead of closing the mail processing center at Easton and diverting that work to what sounds at times like an overwhelmed processing center in Baltimore, send it to Hares Corner for processing," Carper said during a recent hearing, referring to the mail hub located just outside Wilmington.
Mikulski, a master at leveraging her seniority to protect Maryland's interests, is pushing back. In a Feb. 23 letter to U.S. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, Mikulski and Sen. Ben Cardin argued that the only reason the Postal Service is even considering moving the center to Delaware is because of "undue political influence."
"I don't want Delaware at war with us," Mikulski said. "But if we have to, we will fight."
The interstate wrangling comes as Carper is also sponsoring legislation to overhaul the service, including allowing it to cancel some Saturday delivery. Mikulski and Cardin have joined more than two dozen lawmakers in an effort to change that legislation.
State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican who represents Talbot, Dorchester, Caroline and Wicomico counties in the General Assembly, said it would be a "devastating blow" to the Eastern Shore if the Easton plant closes. But he noted that the issue is in the hands of Washington.
"We can't afford to lose any employment," he said.
Larry Poore, owner of a printing company in St. Michaels called the Poore House, shakes his head as he recounts the debate for and against closing the facility. If mailing a letter — or thousands of letters — becomes less convenient, he thinks more people will just do their business online.
And that, he said, would exacerbate one of the mail service's underlying problems.
"It's going to be slower and costlier," said Poore, 52. "And people are just going to quit using the post office."