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.

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