July 14, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Social aspect of post office a luxury we can’t afford

 

Small town post offices are going the way of small town schools, and with them a little more of the framework that holds rural communities together.

Residents don’t like it one bit, but the economic forces weighing against them are as relentless as that vaunted postman undeterred by rain, snow, sleet or hail.

The U.S. Postal Service lost $8.5 billion last year and is on track to lose even more this year. In June, the agency suspended payments in its employee pension plan to conserve cash. More than 100,000 positions have been eliminated in the last two years.

Nothing has been able to reverse a downward spiral.

“Snail mail” has been overtaken by the Internet and all the ethereal methods of communication that get information, including junk mail, to recipients far faster and at far less cost. Bills are delivered and paid with nary a paper trail. All manner of publications come in pixels. Social media encourage “friending” with strangers.

Old news, yet the Postal Service has not been able to develop a business model to replace the one Benjamin Franklin helped put in place more than two centuries ago. And where the agency has come up with potential solutions, private-sector competitors lobby against their implementation.

Sometimes, the Postal Service can’t win for losing.

Netflix, the movie delivery service, generated almost $600 million in revenues for the Postal Service last year. On Tuesday, the company announced price hikes intended to drive more customers onto the Internet for delivery. Bye-bye, DVDs.

But delivering or picking up mail engendered social interaction without need of a hand-held device, except maybe a Hallmark card.

In places like Waverly in Spokane County, the post office is almost the last community gathering point. For a total cost $41,000 annually, folks can pick up mail, buy stamps and survey the bulletin board.

Quaint, but per-person it’s extremely costly.

Various plans have been floated to restructure the Postal Service, and none look good for the Waverlys, Washtucnas – that post office has been closed more than one year – and thousands of other mostly rural centers. The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform introduced his proposal last month.

The plan would cut $1 billion from post offices in its first year, $1 billion from mail processing centers, and extract wage and benefit concessions from union workers. It would finally allow a cutback to Monday-through-Friday delivery – a change the Postal Service has sought for years, but one blocked by skittish members of Congress.

The good news for small towns is the potential Internet connectivity creates for high-tech jobs far from urban centers and in-home businesses of all kinds. The folks will be there, but the bulletin boards will be electronic.

Cuts, when and if they are made, will be painful, but they are just a microcosm of the changes the rest of the federal government must make to attain a balanced budget.

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