Postal Service's plan to close post offices hits roadbumps

Wednesday - 1/4/2012, 7:47pm EST

The Postal Service's recent decision to delay the closing of hundreds of mail processing centers and thousands of local post offices until May has given critics plenty of time to question the agency's strategy to climb out of the red.

"The way that they frame the problem and the language they use have actually created a sense of dismay among the biggest mail users and may not be as helpful to them as a somewhat less-emotional presentation of their situation," Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway told Federal News Radio.

The Postal Service's prediction that it would end fiscal 2012 with a $14.1 billion loss if it did not receive help from Congress was "a little inaccurate," because it included billions of dollars in pension-fund payments that it delayed from last year, she said.

"The key for all of us will be to look at the cash flow of the Postal Service, rather than the big dollar amounts that they say they're losing," she said. "We want to make sure it has enough cash to pay its contractors and employees, and buy the gasoline it needs to deliver mail to people."

The PRC will be tracking that carefully each month through the spring, she said.

In a recent advisory opinion, the PRC questioned the agency's method for selecting the 3,600 post offices to study for closure. The commission said the Postal Service's murky data prevented it from determining how much money it could save.

"The estimates we were able to get on cost savings from the proposal ranged from $100 million to $200 million," Goldway said. "When you're talking about losing billions of dollars, $100 million is not worth fighting about."

In the meantime, she said, the proposal has "created anxiety and bad will in communities."

The PRC considers how the Postal Service's actions will impact the public when issuing its non-binding opinions.

"People are fighting very hard," Goldway said. "Post offices appear to be an iconic symbol even if they don't use them that much. They have a meaning in the community, a social value in the community."

Although it has promised to keep all post offices open until May, the Postal Service is continuing to study those post offices — in addition to 800 others that it previously tapped — for closure. Of the 800, the PRC is reviewing appeals on at least 150.

The future of those post offices hasn't been getting much attention, Goldway said.

"Almost all of them are small, rural post offices where a postmaster has retired and a temporary person is there," she said. "Those people are in a real bind and they're not getting as much of a fair shake as the others."

In addition to reviewing post office closures, the commission is examining the Postal Service's plan to shut 252 processing facilities, reduce delivery from six to five days a week and eliminate overnight delivery.

"At least for the moment, service at the Postal Service is reasonable and acceptable given the financial pressures they're under," Goldway said. "But the proposals that they've come to us for have potential for dramatic changes."

Rural communities would feel the impact the most. By eliminating Saturday delivery, it could take two to three days longer for mail to reach rural areas, she said.

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