WASHINGTON -- The cost to mail a first-class letter looks likely to rise yet again -- but in the future, postal customers might not need to buy those annoying little 1- and 2-cent stamps to make up the difference. The U.S. Postal Service is poised to introduce a "forever" stamp that would always be valid for mailing no matter how high rates might rise.
The independent Postal Regulatory Commission signed off yesterday on a request by the Postal Service for the forever stamp, which would eliminate the need for consumers to purchase additional low-denomination stamps when rates increase.
The Postal Service has been pushing for such a stamp to smooth postal price increases. The Postal Regulatory Commission is also recommending a 2-cent increase in the cost of a first-class stamp -- from 39 cents to 41 cents -- and the forever stamp would be initially sold at that higher rate. If rates later climbed again, the price of the forever stamp would also go up at the counter or machine, but those purchased before the change would still be valid to mail a letter.
"This proposal is good for the Postal Service, postal customers and our postal system," commission Chairman Dan G. Blair said.
The forever stamps are likely to be welcomed by consumers who find themselves having to buy small-denomination stamps whenever prices change. The new stamps' shelf life would also make good sense for the post office, said Stephen L. Sharfman, a spokesman for the commission.
"It's costly for the Postal Service to have make up stamps," he said. "They have to print them, and they have to sell them." That eats into the time postal employees could be using for other tasks, he said.
Sharfman said the commission did not have an estimate for how much the Postal Service would save by not relying on the small-denomination stamps, but "it's at least a wash" in terms of cost, he said. The concept has been used successfully in other countries, including France and Britain.
In addition to the 2-cent increase for a first-class stamp, the commission also recommended that the cost for mailing a postcard rise to 26 cents from the current 24 cents. The Postal Service had sought a 3-cent increase for each.
The commission recommended increases for other types of mail as well. The cost to send 1 pound or less by Priority Mail would rise to $4.60 from $4.05, for example, and sending an 8-ounce Express Mail envelope would cost $16.25, up from $14.40 today.
The Postal Service requested the rate increase and the development of the forever stamp in May, saying that higher prices were needed to cover rising fuel costs for its fleet and health care costs for its employees. The new rates are expected to bring in $77.6 billion in revenue in fiscal 2008, Blair said.
Rates last increased in January 2006. Postmaster General John E. Potter has pointed out that "the Postal Service is not immune to the cost pressures affecting every household and business in America."
The Postal Service's board of governors can choose to implement the commission's recommendations or ask the commission to reconsider. If approved, the new rates could go into effect as early as May.
Stephanie Hendricks of the Direct Marketing Association said she doubted that large businesses would buy big quantities of forever stamps, as most use bulk shipment rather than first-class rates.
Under the recommendation, mailing prices for magazines, newspapers and advertisements would go up, while those for nonprofits and church bulletins would drop.
Customers at Best Wishes, a greeting card store that houses a branch post office in Delray Beach, Fla., were talking yesterday about the forever stamps. "But it's too early to tell if they'll be interested in them," said manager Michael Pravata. "Some will be, for sure."
Adam Schreck writes for the Los Angeles Times. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Associated Press contributed to this article.