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Postmaster general visits potential closure sites

4/12/2012

INGOMAR, Mont. (AP) -- The top U.S. Postal Service official on Thursday took his case for rural post office closures straight to the people it will hurt most, telling residents in Montana's capital and in one of its smallest towns that up to 3,600 small post offices around the country need to be shuttered as part of cost-cutting moves.

Rural residents who traveled to Helena to meet Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe answered right back, saying cuts should be made elsewhere because their post offices provide a much-needed lifeline.

One woman from the southwestern Montana town of Basin told Donahoe she has no Internet access and relies on the mail. But like many other rural residents, she does not receive mail delivery.

DeDe Rhodes said if her post office closes, the next one is more than 10 miles away, making her regular trip to pick up mail much more costly.

"I need you to really consider what we are saying. People need their rural post offices," Rhodes told Donahoe. "Let's look at the urban areas. Maybe they don't need as many post offices because they get their mail delivered right to their door, or at least to the curb."

In Montana alone, about 80 small post offices are slated for closure, from Alzada to Zurich.

The agency needs to reorganize in part because of a 60 percent decline in the number of people paying bills through the mail and the cost of paying into its employee retirement benefits, Donahoe told the gathering in Helena, which is facing the loss of its mail processing center.

Last year, postal losses totaled $5.1 billion, and those losses are projected to grow.

"We are in a heck of a financial situation. That is why it is so important we move ahead with some of the changes we need to make," Donahoe said. "You have to do something. You can't sit back and wait."

Donohoe's Montana visit is his first to a local community specifically to hear their concerns about the impact of the proposed closings. In recent months, he has toured postal facilities in dozens of other communities as part of regular visits to survey the Postal Service's vast mail network.

The trip comes as the Senate prepares as early as next week to take up legislation that would slow, if not stop, the Postal Service's plans to close roughly half of the nation's 460 mail processing centers beginning this year. The move would slow first-class mail delivery and, for the first time in 40 years, eliminate the chance for stamped letters to arrive the next day.

At the request of Congress, the mail agency previously agreed not to close any facilities before May 15. Donahoe said they agency has to consider competing requests to preserve certain aspects of its services, like six-day delivery, as it weighs a whole slate of reductions that include the closures.

In a report released Thursday, federal auditors stressed that "dramatic changes" were needed to stem the Postal Service's mounting debt and that the agency's proposal to close mail processing centers, estimated to save roughly $3 billion a year, was an important part of accomplishing that goal.

The report by the Government Accountability Office also noted that the proposal to close mail centers faced tough obstacles due to local communities' opposition to the job losses and cutbacks in service. Labor agreements also make layoffs and forced employee transfers difficult, the report said.

The GAO auditors expressed support for elements of a House postal bill that would set up a new commission to make major decisions on postal cuts, including reducing mail delivery to five days a week. They said that if Congress opted to delay or prevent the closing of mail processing centers, lawmakers would have to find other ways to significantly cut postal costs.

"Without congressional action to help USPS address its financial problems, USPS may have to seek a rate increase of unprecedented scale, or fall even further into debt," the auditors wrote.

In the Senate, a bill would postpone a proposed postal cut to five-day mail delivery by at least two years and require additional review before mail facilities could be closed. In response to concerns from rural states, bill sponsors have been discussing possible additions that could keep many low-revenue post offices and processing centers in rural communities open at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year. That expense would be paid for with a proposed 5-cent increase to a first-class stamp, to 50 cents.

Donahoe met later Thursday with worried residents on the other side of the state whose post office is slated to close.

The tiny eastern Montana town of Ingomar, with its population of just over 100, was in decline even before the railroad through here was abandoned in 1980. But locals say losing its post office would be especially hard.

The postmaster general's trip to Montana was spurred by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was met by a group of concerned residents when he passed through the town last year. He promised to bring Donahoe back to answer their questions personally.

Baucus said he is going to use his influential budget-drafting position to push ideas like Rhodes' proposal to close urban post offices. Baucus said there are 50 post offices within a five-mile radius of the U.S. Capitol.

"It just seems to me if we close post offices, those are the folks who can go one mile or two miles extra," Baucus said.

The Postal Service projects its loss this year could be over $14 billion, and without changes could rise to over $21 billion by 2016.

"We cannot allow political interests to trump our responsibility to restore the Postal Service to solvency and protect the taxpayer from picking up the tab for surplus facilities," said Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a sponsor of the House bill.

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Online: Potential closures: http://about.usps.com/news/electronic-press-kits/expandedaccess/statelist.htm

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Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report from Washington.