PORTLAND, Maine — Members of Maine’s congressional delegation blasted the U.S. Postal Service’s proposed elimination of Saturday mail delivery, saying the move would disproportionately affect the rural communities that make up the majority of their home state.

But the postal service’s regional spokesman said the organization must take steps to deal with severe revenue shortages and heavy debt in recent years, and customers have cited shifting to five-day letter delivery as preferable to increasing costs.

Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service’s northern New England region, said the service would continue to deliver packages door-to-door on Saturdays after the change, which the service hopes will be implemented by August.

“There have been multiple surveys done by us and by independent pollsters,” Rizzo told the BDN on Wednesday. “Upward of 70 percent [of respondents] supported the move to five-day delivery if it means there won’t be any taxpayer funding.

“We’ve also heard some concerns, conversely, that many of the customers were worried about not receiving packages, such as medicines, on Saturdays,” he said. “So we believe what we’re doing helps place us on better financial footing while also taking into consideration some very legitimate concerns by our customers.”

The elimination of Saturday home delivery of mail reportedly would save the U.S. Postal Service approximately $2 billion per year as it continues to face heavy revenue losses. Rizzo said late last year that the service has lost more than $25 billion since 2007, in part from a 50 percent reduction in use of first-class mail delivery during the last decade.

“I understand that they have to do that to save money,” said Esther Clenott, a resident and former mayor of Portland, who spoke with the BDN on her way out of the city’s Congress Street post office. “I think our problem is not with the post office, it’s the fact that people are using their machines so much at home, to send their emails, that what they’re doing by that is creating a financial issue for the post office.”

The decision to drop Saturday mail delivery comes on the heels of attempts by the service to reduce hours at rural post offices, which receive less traffic than many of their urban counterparts. Of the nearly 13,000 post office branches nationwide tapped for hour reductions — in some cases down to as few as two open hours per day — 244 are in Maine.

Those hour reductions, which are scheduled to be implemented by the fall of 2014, are expected to save the postal service as much as $500 million annually.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed a bill in 2012 that would have prevented the service from eliminating Saturday delivery for at least two years, but that legislation never was taken up by the House after passing in the Senate. In a statement Wednesday, she said maintaining office hours and mail delivery was crucial to support the country’s $1 trillion “mailing and mail-related” industries, which employ 8 million workers “in fields as diverse as direct mail, printing, catalog companies, magazine and newspaper publishing, and paper manufacturing.”

Collins questioned the service’s assumption that dropping the service would save $2 billion annually and said the organization should focus its efforts on employee buyouts and compensation reform instead of service reductions.

“The Postal Regulatory Commission found that the postal service’s proposed savings from moving to five-day delivery were overly inflated by $1.4 billion,” Collins said in a Wednesday statement. “It also found that a reduction in delivery days will result in more lost revenue and fewer customers than the postal service had anticipated.

“The fact is, nearly 80 percent of the postal service’s costs are workforce-related, and so as painful as it may be, finding a compassionate way to reduce these costs is simply unavoidable,” she continued.

Fellow Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was not in office when Collins’ bill was considered, but on Wednesday signaled support for her legislation, or something similar, to help the service solve its financial troubles instead of cutting services.

“It is my hope that Congress accepts today’s announcement as an impetus to immediately begin work on postal reform legislation to adequately address the USPS’s looming economic crisis,” King said in a statement, in part. “These decisions are difficult but common-sense reforms like the ones advocated in [ Collins’] measure are preferential and will ultimately help to maintain the solvency of USPS and preserve its essential services.”

From the House, Democratic Maine Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree also expressed concerns.

“This move by the Postal Service could disproportionately affect rural communities that depend on reliable and timely mail delivery,” said Michaud and Pingree in a joint statement. “The bottom line is that Congress needs to act on postal reform so that we can avoid unnecessary service disruptions that could have a negative impact on families, businesses and our economy as a whole.”

Other Mainers were less concerned about the change. By 5 p.m., more than 67 percent of respondents to an informal online poll said Saturday mail delivery should be ended.

“I think the government’s hurting for money and everybody’s paying a lot of taxes,” said Dan Desena of Cape Elizabeth on Wednesday. “I think we can get along great waiting until Monday for our mail.”

Molly Smith of Portland said dropping Saturday mail delivery is “OK.”

“I think we’ve been spoiled, to be honest with you. It’s a great service, and so we’ll be all right.” she said.

“I spoke to my postman the other day. The only thing I’m getting in the mail is junk,” said Clenott. “I’m not getting letters from anybody anymore. I’m not really getting anything worthwhile anymore, and so I think unfortunately that’s what’s going to have to happen.”

But Becky Morse, who lives in the southern Maine town of Buxton, said she wanted to see Saturday mail delivery continue.

“I look forward to getting my mail on Saturday like any other day, and with … checks coming and the economy still the way it is, people really count on it,” Morse said Wednesday. “Say nothing of the people who will lose some [work hours] by [eliminating Saturday mail delivery]. That’s probably going to be quite a chunk out of their paychecks, I would think.”

Maine State Association of Letter Carriers president Mitch Bowman released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying his group is “extremely disappointed” by the potential end of Saturday mail delivery and would “work to defeat this short-sighted proposal.”

“We believe this would be a death spiral for the postal service,” Bowman said in part.

Tim Doughty, president of the the American Postal Workers Union Local 458 in the Portland area, agreed, telling the BDN, “Our customers will be negatively impacted by not being able to receive Netflix movies, birthday cards and other correspondence on Saturdays.

“I believe the postal service does a disservice to their own business model when they even propose service cuts to the very class of mail in which we have the potential to realize the largest profits,” Doughty said in an email late Wednesday afternoon. “When faced with a reduction in volume, most profitable companies would focus on generating revenue and increasing demand. Instead, the postal service is planning to slash and burn their way to financial solvency, and most business experts would agree that this is a doomed strategy.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.