BREWER, Maine — It was obvious from the jammed parking lots and the crammed conference room that Wednesday night’s public meeting was a priority for postal employees and customers alike.
Approximately 350 people were on hand to listen to U.S. Postal Service representatives explain a controversial consolidation proposal that includes the closure of operations at the Eastern Maine Processing and Distribution facility in Hampden. Maine’s only other facility, a plant located in Scarborough, would take over duties for the entire state.
Both U.S. senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who toured the Hampden plant last month and met with postal workers, personally attended the meeting. Both were strident in their opposition to the proposal.
“What the Postal Service doesn’t seem to fully appreciate is how much its plans would harm so many Maine businesses, their customers and their employees,” said Collins. “This proposal could create a death spiral from which the Postal Service might never recover.”
Snowe is also against the proposal, which resulted from a nationwide USPS study begun in September to evaluate potential savings through consolidation of services and facilities for the nation’s financially beleaguered mail service.
“I just do not know how this current proposal enhances the productivity and competitiveness of the U.S. Postal Service,” said Snowe. “Some businesses are already considering shifting to private carriers if this goes through.”
The USPS study estimates a potential annual savings of $7,566,932 if the proposal is initiated. Forty-two jobs would be lost.
Snowe recounted some early projected cost-saving figures in the USPS’ initial feasibility study summary, noting a figure of $797,000 in savings realized from the cutting of two management positions at the plant. After she questioned the salary figure for just two full-time management positions, that number was revised down to $177,053.
“You have to ask, given some of the figures I’ve asked about and they’ve revised, how accurate are the other savings in the other categories in these proposals?” Snowe said.
According to USPS representatives, drastic decline in mail volume because of competing electronic mail alternatives and economic conditions worldwide have resulted in declining business and an excess of employees and equipment at some USPS facilities.
Snowe and Collins led off the public comments section of the event, which involved 30 total speakers — 12 politicians at the state and local levels, eight postal employees and several customers.
Kevin Marquis, president of the Aroostook Letter Carriers Union, drove down from Houlton for the meeting.
“This really impacts our area,” Marquis said. “And we’re throwing away trust.”
Several people made mention of the top-heavy nature of the USPS when it comes to upper-level officer salaries.
Another fiscal hindrance for the financially strapped American mail institution is a legislative requirement through the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act to pay 75 years’ worth of health care benefits between 2007 and 2017, which makes for an average of $5.5 billion a year.
“The overpayment into the federal retirement system is one of the things we have to look at,” said Snowe. “Clearly there’s a strong consensus to redress that problem because it has placed enormous financial pressure on the Postal Service.”
Tom Rizzo, USPS spokesman for the Northern New England District, which includes Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, said the USPS’ financial situation — it has announced it has to cut $20 billion in operating costs by 2015 to turn a profit — is a very complicated one.
“That law was passed by the House and the Senate, so yes, I guess you could perceptively pose that as a law of unintended consequences,” said Rizzo. “And that’s why we need the support and involvement of our senators to help us with this situation.”
Even Tim Doughty, president of the postal workers union in Scarborough, where Hampden’s processing operations would shift if the proposal was enacted, is against the idea.
“My problem is everything is predicated by change in our delivery system,” Doughty said. “But we’re all about quickness and getting things there fast these days.”
Doughty was referring to the proposal’s support of the replacement of first-class mail with a two- to three-day service standard.
John Porter, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that when businesses and people are in crisis, they tend to panic.
“You make bad decisions when you panic,” Porter said.
“Too often when in crisis, the Postal Service turns to rate hikes and service cuts instead of eliminating bureaucracy and improving efficiency,” said Collins.
The USPS has said it will not make any decisions at least until May 15, and that the proposals are only those and not final.
“The financial situation has just deteriorated so much that we’ve had to put forth this very bold and controversial proposal that’s left a lot of our employees and customers asking a lot of questions,” Rizzo said. “And we’re listening to all questions and all suggestions.”
Rizzo, Mike Powers, USPS marketing manager for Northern New England; and Deborah Essler, USPS northern New England district manager; said meetings such as the one held Wednesday help put a human face on the services, businesses and people affected.
“We really wanted to know what the public thought and what you saw tonight was some very well-thought-out content,” said Essler. “It wasn’t just emotion and tonight was really perfect the way the crowd conducted itself and gave us specifics to look at.”