Post Offices: Too Important To Be Stamped Out

Star Tribune, April 9, 2012

In this piece in the Star Tribune David Morris speaks out on the need to stop the tidal wave of post office closings that will occur when the Post Office’s self-imposed moratorium ends in mid May.

Last year, 3,600 communities, about 90 in Minnesota, were notified that they’ll probably lose their local post office. Last December, a popular uprising persuaded members of Congress to speak out, which led U.S. Postal Service management to impose a 6-month moratorium on further closings.

That ends in mid-May. We need to demand that it be extended indefinitely. Our local post offices are too valuable to lose.

Tens of millions of Americans will be negatively affected by the closures, while the Postal Service’s own estimates are for savings that are trivial. Closing all 3,600 would save $200 million — 0.03 percent of its $64 billion budget.

“We’re not the only ones going through this trend,” insists Dean Granholm, vice president of delivery and post office operations for the Postal Service. “All sorts of retailers are trying to find ways to do this.”

But the post office is not Starbucks or McDonalds or Wal-Mart. It is a commons, a public service — and a significant part of that service is the ubiquity of post offices themselves.

Postal Service management is deciding which post offices live or die using a cost-benefit methodology almost identical to that used by private retailers. Only half the equation is included: the savings to the USPS. The other half, the costs to the community, is ignored.

Consider the post office closure in Prairie City, S.D. It saved the Postal Service $19,000 a year. The community it served will spend far more each year to travel to a more distant post office.

But it is the qualitative costs that haunt the community. The Prairie City post office was a gathering place where people could keep up with one another and with the local news. Prairie City postal clerks kept a pot of coffee brewing and posted birth and death notices.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the area’s only major hospital and pharmacy is in Hettinger, N.D., 40 miles away. Before, when an elderly person or farmer in Prairie City quickly needed an antibiotic or other medication, a pharmacist in Hettinger would rush prescriptions to the Hettinger post office, catching the mail carrier who each day traveled from Hettinger to the Prairie City post office.

The closing eliminated that direct route, and now Prairie City mail is sorted and delivered on a rural route out of Bison, S.D., delaying the delivery of medicine from Hettinger by two or three days.

The Postal Service is our most ubiquitous and admired public institution. Six days a week, it delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail, 40 percent of the entire world’s volume, often directly to our front doors.

For the price of a 44-cent stamp, the lowest postal rate in the world, you can mail a letter anywhere within the nation’s borders. And if the recipient can’t be found, the Postal Service will return it at no extra charge. Business Week calls it “the greatest bargain on earth.”

After the 1970s, the Postal Service became its own agency. Congress eliminated its taxpayer subsidy. Productivity soared. By the 1990s, it often generated a profit. As of 2005, it was free of debt.

So how is it that today the service is being forced to decimate itself to pay off a huge deficit?

Here’s the back story. The Postal Service pays into several retirement and health funds. Almost everyone agrees that in the past it has vastly overpaid, some estimate by as much as $100 billion.

One would think it a simple matter for Congress to allow the USPS to tap into these excess funds to pay current health benefits. One would be wrong. The Congressional Budget Office counts the surplus funds as part of the existing budget.

Thus if the Postal Service were to use its own money, it would increase the deficit. In 2006, it finally agreed to buy off the CBO. Budget neutrality over a 10-year period was achieved by requiring the USPS to make annual payments of $5.4 billion to $5.8 billion.

This manufactured financial crisis legitimized the privateers attack on the Postal Service. Proposals include ending Saturday delivery, which would open the door to private companies; divesting half the service’s physical infrastructure, and even ending door-to-door delivery.

Eventually the Postal Service plans to close more than 15,000 post offices. A nationwide grass-roots resistance has emerged that cuts across party lines, uniting rich and poor, rural and urban, black, white and Hispanic.

They are fighting to save a government institution that fundamentally contributes to their sense of community, of social cohesion, of well-being.

We need to demand that Congress end the manufactured financial crisis and cease forcing the transformation of the nation’s oldest public institution into an increasingly private enterprise that looks to strengthen its internal balance sheet by weakening the balance sheets of hundreds of millions of Americans it serves.

This is a public institution worth fighting for.