Of death spirals and remarkable revisions

By Kent Ward,
Posted Jan. 13, 2012, at 5:18 p.m.

In a feasibility study to determine whether the U.S. Postal Service should close its Eastern Maine mail processing and distribution center at Hampden and process all of the state’s mail at a similar facility in Scarborough, among the projected savings was $797,000 through the elimination of two managerial positions at Hampden.

After Sen. Olympia Snowe questioned the salary figure for just two people, the bean counters had another go at it and found they had made a $620,000 miscalculation. The savings would be $177,053, not $797,000, Snowe was subsequently told.

Oops.

Given that revision, the accuracy of other projected savings in the proposed consolidation of the Hampden and Scarborough processing centers could be legitimately questioned, Snowe suggested to an estimated 350 concerned citizens at a public hearing in Brewer on Wednesday.

According to USPS representatives at the meeting, competing electronic mail alternatives and economic conditions worldwide have resulted in a drastic decline in mail volume and an excess of employees and equipment at some postal facilities. As mail volume has lagged, state-of-the-art mail processing equipment has allowed for more efficient processing than ever before, Tom Rizzo, northern New England spokesman for the postal service, said in an interview last fall. The USPS must cut $20 billion in operating costs by 2015 in order to turn a profit, he said then.

The postal service’s financial situation has become so dire “we’ve had to put forth this very bold and controversial proposal that’s left our employees and customers asking a lot of questions,” Rizzo told Wednesday’s gathering. “And we’re listening to all questions and suggestions.”

The proposal is certainly bold and controversial. Sen. Susan Collins will give Rizzo that. So bold, in fact, that it “could create a death spiral from which the Postal Service might never recover,” the senator warned at the hearing. “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,” she said.

In commentary published Wednesday in the Bangor Daily News, Collins predicted that closure of the Hampden processing facility would harm many Maine businesses, perhaps forcing them to turn to nonpostal options for delivery of their products. Once they leave the mail system, they won’t be coming back, she cautioned, and the postal service’s revenues would take another huge hit.

According to newspaper files, the Hampden mail processing operation, which opened in 1994, employs 183 people with a payroll estimated to be in the $7 million range. In August 2008, the processing of standard class flat mail for ZIP codes that begin with 044, 045, 047 and 049, which had been handled at Hampden for more than a decade, was shifted to Scarborough.

The camel, having stuck his snout under the tent flap, now aspires to get all the way in. Under the USPS proposal, all classes of mail from all Maine ZIP codes would be trucked to Scarborough for processing.

Lisa Main, president of Bangor Area Local 536 of the American Postal Workers Union, which opposes the proposed Hampden closure, estimated in an email that northern Maine residents and business firms who depend upon first-class service of one to two days might be “looking at three to four days, if not more” if the Hampden plant is closed.

In her newspaper commentary, Collins wrote that it is impossible for the postal service to cover this large state efficiently — in accordance with its legal mandate to serve the entire population of the United States with “adequate and efficient postal services at fair and reasonable rates” — with just one mail processing plant in Scarborough.

She said she has shown the postmaster general a map of Maine “to illustrate our vast distances” and presumably to show, as well, that Hampden is a more geographically central location from which to better serve the entire state, should it come to that, than is Scarborough.

The distance from Fort Kent to Scarborough is 322 miles, meaning that mail originating in Fort Kent addressed to another party in Fort Kent may be trucked roughly 640 miles round trip to Scarborough and back for eventual delivery to an addressee across town — as compared to the round trip of “only” 384 miles to Hampden and back at present.

There’s something about such a game plan that has long seemed out of whack, but I can’t quite put my finger on just what it might be.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/01/13/opinion/contributors/of-death-spirals-and-remarkable-revisions/ printed on July 30, 2014