As competing bills designed to save the U.S. Postal Service are debated in Congress, the postmaster general on Wednesday issued a reprieve for rural post offices.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the agency was backing down from a plan to close 3,700 post offices after May 15, after hearing strong community opposition in public meetings.
Instead, the Postal Service will reduce full-time employees in the low-revenue locations, and more than 13,000 post offices will reduce their hours, being open from two hours to six hours per day.
Keeping his post office open is what Paul Duncan, of Crestline, Kan., wants. On Monday, he seemed almost resigned to it being closed.
“Our little town, it’s one of the last pieces of our identity left,” Duncan said.
He said that when U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., were in Crestline for a public hearing on the proposed post office closure, he told them that he would rather see the government subsidize the Postal Service than subsidize big oil companies.
“This is a vital service,” Duncan said.
Kim Henson, of Crestline, said she felt the same.
“For Crestline, there’s nothing here but our little post office,” she said.
She and Duncan said the post office serves as a community meeting place, where residents can catch up with one another and discuss community news.
“We like our little post office,” Henson said.
Besides Crestline, area post offices in Kansas slated for closure were in Frontenac, Opolis and West Mineral. Area Missouri post offices on the closure list were in Avilla, Wentworth, Deerfield and Metz.
Most of those on the closure list and many more post offices are slated for reduced hours. In Missouri, those include Carterville, Asbury and Oronogo. In Kansas, post offices on the list for reduced hours include those in Cherokee, Scammon and St. Paul. Oklahoma post offices on the list include those in North Miami, Commerce and Bluejacket.
The plan doesn’t rule out future post office closures, but the statement reads that rural post offices will remain open unless a community has a strong preference for one of the alternative options. The options include village post offices located in stores and merging nearby post offices.
The new plan includes a voluntary early retirement incentive for more than 21,000 postmasters.
The overall strategy will be phased in over two years, to be completed in September 2014. It is estimated to save $500 million annually. The agency has projected a record $14 billion loss by the end of the year.
In addition, the agency plans to announce new changes next week regarding its proposal to close about 250 mail processing centers, including the one in Springfield.
U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., said he was pleased with the announcement and that he had proposed last year making across-the-board cuts rather than closing post offices altogether.
“I think they’re headed down the right path now,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview.
Apart from the announcement, bills addressing the Postal Service’s financial shortfalls are being debated in Congress. The Senate last month passed a bill that would return to the Postal Service $11 billion in overpayments to federal pension funds, providing short-term financial relief. It also would place restrictions on future post office closures. It had the support of Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, and Kansas Sens. Moran and Pat Roberts. Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn both voted against it.
McCaskill said Tuesday in a phone interview that the Senate bill had widespread bipartisan support.
“It puts pressure on the leadership in the House to take action,” she said.
So far, the House hasn’t acted.
Jenkins is co-sponsor of a House bill that her spokesman said would correct the Postal Service’s overpayment to the federal government, allowing it to transfer surplus contributions that were made to the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.
“Congresswoman Jenkins understands that for generations post offices have been Main Street anchors to our rural communities and believes those anchors, as well as six-day delivery, should largely be preserved,” Jenkins spokesman Sean Fitzpatrick said in an email.
He said Jenkins wasn’t familiar with the Senate bill because she was focused on the House bill.
Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, said the bill Jenkins is sponsoring has bipartisan support. She said it would result in a refund to the Postal Service of $50 billion to $75 billion that resulted from inequities in the funding formula for the Civil Service Retirement System.
“The House bill would give the Postal Service the money to thrive in the future,” Davidow said. “The Senate bill would give it the money to fight another day.”
She said the Senate bill is a short-term fix and doesn’t go far enough.
There’s also another House bill being debated.
“That bill would destroy the Postal Service,” Davidow said. “It would cut $3 billion and close more post offices and service centers than the Postal Service already had planned to close.”
McCaskill said the Senate bill places the Postal Service in a much better fiscal footing than it is in now. She said her priorities are keeping rural post offices open and maintaining six-day delivery. She said she is willing to compromise with any House bill that accomplishes that.
“We need to create a business model for the Postal Service that makes it work for everybody,” McCaskill said.
Long said he thinks it’s likely that some combination of the Senate bill and the House bill that has bipartisan support would get final approval.