By: Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor News, Benson
Not a lot of people or businesses apparently care about the loss of Saturday mail. Considering the mounting losses at the United States Postal Service and the even greater losses projected for coming years, the cuts make sense, many concede.
But most citizens do not realize that there is far more at stake for rural America than the loss of Saturday mail. There are a combination of changes already at work that will lead to serious declines in the Postal Service’s delivery frequency and quality to rural residents and businesses.
Postmaster General Pat Donahoe announced Feb. 6 that he believed he had the authority to end Saturday mail delivery without congressional approval. He plans to do just that at the start of August. He says it will save the Postal Service $2 billion annually, easing its budget woes.
The Postal Service lost $15.9 billion in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. However, just $2.4 billion of that loss was due to its mail delivery operations. Over $11 billion of the loss was due to the Postal Service defaulting on two $5.5 billion payments required to pre-fund its employee retiree health benefits.
The Postal Service was required to pre-fund those benefits by Congress is 2006. The requirement means funding 75 years worth of retiree benefits in just 10 years, thus the need to pay $5.5 billion annually. Because it no longer has the cash flow to make those payments, it is now defaulting on them. It has asked Congress to suspend the pre-funding requirement.
Donahoe believes the Postal Service is a business and should be run like one – ending Saturday mail is a business decision, he says. “It’s a reasonable business action and common sense; when revenue drops you have to make changes, you can’t run away from it,” he said.
If Donahoe has his way, letter carriers will deliver mail and packages Monday through Friday. However, on Saturdays, only packages will be delivered – no letters or other mail.
We do not agree with Donahoe’s assertion that the United States Postal Service is a business – it is a service. To operate it like a business would be devastating for rural mail delivery. Why would any profit-making business establish routes along sparsely populated country roads? It wouldn’t.
Deeper cuts to service being implemented
It isn’t just the loss of Saturday mail that concerns us. The Postal Service under Donahoe has been pushing for extreme consolidation of Mail Processing Centers (MPC) around the country.
It is at these centers where mail from an entire region is shipped to be sorted for return to area post offices where local postal workers distribute it. Donahoe has been pushing to shut down at least 250 of the nation’s 470 processing centers for several years now. In Minnesota, he wants to close Waite Park, Bemidji, Mankato, Duluth and Rochester. Congress has temporarily thwarted his plan; but that plan hasn’t gone away, it is just moving ahead more slowly.
Rochester’s Mail Processing Center is gone and Duluth’s is likely to be closed by sometime next year, if not sooner. Bemidji remains open, as does Waite Park, but both are slated for closure within two years.
If the Bemidji MPC were to close, mail from International Falls would have to go to the Twin Cities – six hours away, one way, on good roads – to be sorted and returned. This effectively will delay mail delivery by a day, not just for International Falls, but for much of northern Minnesota. If you live in the Twin Cities, you won’t see that delay.
So now add the slowed delivery to the elimination of Saturday mail and you begin to see the future of a second-class postal customer in rural America.
Donahoe’s plans mean the gradual erosion of the quality and reliability of the Postal Service. Each of his cuts is forcing businesses to look for alternative ways of getting their products and mail delivered.
Further cuts will be called for as the downward revenue spiral continues, fueled by degraded customer service. One after another the cuts will continue until the Postal Service is either gone, privatized, or a metropolitan-focused agency that also does package delivery. Universal postal service to rural America will be a thing of the past.
He says the Postal Service will continue to delivery packages on Saturdays. But does it make sense to drive 10 miles, past a dozen homes and mailboxes in the country to deliver one package on Saturday? How long before the Postal Service says that it isn’t profitable to deliver packages to remote rural destinations?
Donahoe’s announced plan also sets precedent for future cuts to service. Five years from now will the USPS unilaterally cut business from five days to four or three? Will it decide that rural delivery to far-flung corners of America is no longer feasible?
Rural economic development disadvantaged
Competitive, timely Postal Service delivery of mail is an economic development necessity for rural America. Delaying the delivery of bills, payments and goods going to and from rural America puts rural communities at an economic development disadvantage.
In the future, business will be more likely to locate near the cities where the Mail Processing Centers are located to ensure faster turn around of checks, bills and products essential to their success.
Over the centuries, the Postal Service has built an irreplaceable delivery infrastructure, expanding routes as the population has expanded. It delivers letters across town and across the country -from Key West, Florida, to Fairbanks, Alaska, for the same cost of 46 cents. It has the employees, planes and mail trucks to make it all happen, six days a week.
Is it becoming obsolete?
No one else will serve rural America as cheaply or thoroughly as the Postal Service. FedEx and UPS both use the Postal Service for last-mile delivery because it isn’t profitable for them to provide the service.
Late payment charges
The loss of Saturday mail along with the delays created by the closing of nearby Mail Processing Centers and ending Saturday will mean some people won’t get their credit card, utility, or other bills mailed in time. This will make the payment late and a penalty for the consumer will be added. Rural residences will disproportionally be the ones seeing the increase in their penalty charges.
What Donahoe is creating
The Postmaster General is creating a Postal Service that is more interested in competition for business and less interested in serving the needs of unprofitable customers. Those unprofitable customers tend to be in rural communities in the more sparsely populated states.
His plan to continue package delivery, a quickly growing segment of its otherwise downward spiraling service, shows its focus away from serving citizens to serving business.
Under PMG Donahoe, the USPS is throwing fairness out the window and using its monopolistic dominance in mail delivery to create winners and losers.
USPS is now offering special deals to very large customers trying to take market share away from newspapers and private delivery services.
Donahoe’s restructuring efforts at the Postal Service are geared to take it away from its constitutional mandate of universal service to America. Those of us living in rural America will be the big losers.