Everyone seems to be worrying about the U.S. Postal Service going into a “death spiral.” The Internet is taking over communications. Fewer people send first-class letters. The service’s income increasingly is from junk mail. Costs are rising. The recession has hit mail users. The service has been running a deficit for three years and predicts financial collapse unless something is done.
The remedy proposed by Postmaster Pat Dohanoe, who heads the semi-independent agency, includes closing or consolidating hundreds of “low-activity” post offices, eliminating Saturday service and laying off thousands of postal workers.
He also would cut back more than half of the present mail processing and distribution centers, including the one in Hampden that serves central, Down East and northern Maine. That could delay for a day or two your next Netflix delivery or a vitally needed medication or legal paper. It also would mean that a letter mailed in Bangor to another Bangor address would have to go to Scarborough and back.
To Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, ranking minority member of the committee that oversees the postal service, that’s mostly the wrong idea. The pending bill that she and Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., have drafted would keep Saturday operations for at least two years, provide a waiting period and a study of impact before a post office or distribution center could be closed, authorize certain curbside instead of front-door delivery, arrange buyouts of 100,000 postal workers and ease prefunding requirements for pensions and retiree health benefits.
Current pre-funding rules have led to much confusion and dispute. A 2010 report said that the Postal Service had overpaid its retirement account by $75 billion, a figure denounced by the Office of Personnel Management, which strongly opposed any reduction in pre-funding. The inspector general said that reduced pre-funding would enable the postal service to substantially meet its obligations, conserve cash and improve its financial condition.
The Collins bill would maintain pension pre-funding at 100 percent but reduce health care pre-funding to 80 percent. Sen. Collins says recent analysis puts pension overfunding at $11.4 billion and says there is no overfunding on health care for retirees.
The bill would increase postal revenues in some ways, including by allowing shipping of wine and beer, as FedEx and UPS do.
A rival bill by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., also would authorize post offices to notarize documents, issue driver’s licenses, register vehicles, register voters, provide Internet service and sell hunting and fishing licenses. Such additions would produce income as well as enhancing the traditional role of the local post office as a community social and service center.
Could a hardworking postmaster take on additional duties on that scale? Postmaster Joy Sprague, in the tiny Islesford post office on Little Cranberry Island, says enthusiastically, “I would — with bells on.”