Post offices

Shorter hours are not the worst possible option

Under a plan to pare postal costs without drastically reducing service to rural residents, several Southwest Colorado post offices would remain open with reduced hours. It is not a perfect solution, but it is probably the best way to balance a long list of competing interests.

The U.S. Postal Service deficit has provided a fascinating political exercise, because many of the proposed cuts, current and past, have targeted rural areas where, ordinarily and abstractly, budget-cutting measures are viewed positively. “Live within your means” is a rural motto.

Unfortunately, the lost or reduction of postal services affects rural residents’ ability to earn a living.

Ideally, the agency would provide all the services everyone wants, at a price everyone can afford, without operating at a loss. Realistically, all three of those provisions are impossible.

To begin with, many postal patrons want services they rarely use. They also have learned to do without many of those services. A local post office, preferably within walking distance, staffed during the hours when an employed person can visit it, has never been a reality for rural residents or commuters. Anyone who works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. had better be able to pop into the post office during the lunch hour if they expect to be able to buy stamps, mail a package or sign for one.

Affordability is a complex issue, especially in the sparsely populated rural West. Tiny post offices are less cost-effective than large ones, as is mail delivery to far-flung places. Aggregating mail-processing centers to serve larger populations renders them farther apart and farther from some customers. (A new proposal for processing centers is due out later this week.) Altogether, those factors cause serving a postal patron in, say, Hesperus, to be far more expensive than serving one in New York, N.Y.

Many other delivery mechanisms exist for information and physical goods. Some of them are cheaper than the U.S. mail, some are faster and some may be both; all have drawn customers away from an agency whose business model depends on volume. A private company could change, make cuts or get out of the mail business altogether; the USPS is not nearly so nimble.

Pressured by citizens, postal workers’ unions and Congress, the Postal Service has backed off on plans to close small post offices, but those facilities still do not pay their own way. Their costs contribute to higher rates for all postal customers, and to the agency’s large loss (projected at more than $12 billion this year). Those numbers push the USPS ever closer to an eventual default on payments to the U.S. Treasury – and that, in turn, pushes Congress closer to a very difficult decision.

With all that in mind, shortening hours – although it represents a reduction in service and a hard hit for employees – may be the best option available for small rural post offices. Far more drastic measures will be required to balance the USPS budget. An entirely new strategy is essential, and that strategy, whatever it might be, is sure to upset rural residents and nearly everyone else accustomed to having mail delivered at least nearby six days a week.

This first step shows that postal officials did listen to the concerns of rural residents and try to address them, rather than sitting in Washington office applying a formula that prescribes a post office for every 10,000, or however many, residents. Miles must be considered in the calculation.

Submit comments. Attend the meetings. Be realistic, though, about the odds of getting a better deal.