Looks like Postal Service won't be heeding comments

Great Falls Tribune

by Editorial

We've occasionally wondered if, in the course of soliciting public comments on this plan or that, government bureaucrats weren't just paying lip service to the idea of citizen involvement.

It's a question that surely occurs to anyone who comes out on the opposite side of a government decision.

But rarely has that lip-service treatment been more crassly evident than in the U.S. Postal Service's decision announced Monday to proceed with plans to make snail mail even slower, backing off on the promised speed of delivery of first-class mail. The decision flows from a determination made a few months ago to study closing 252 of the service's 487 mail processing and distribution plants, including four in Montana — Missoula, Kalispell, Helena and Wolf Point.

By proceeding with the slower-mail decision this week, then, it appears the Postal Service's facility-closure train has left the station, even though the public comment period is still running on many of the closures, and the overall study isn't scheduled to be done until early next year.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pointed out the apparent disingenuousness of the USPS action in a letter Monday to members of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the Postal Service.

The public comment periods for closing the Kalispell and Missoula facilities don't even end until next week, Tester said, and the Postal Service held public comment meetings on those two facilities just last week.

"By presupposing the closure of processing facilities, the Postal Service is sidestepping due process and violating its legal obligation to fully consider public input before closing these mail centers," Tester wrote. "The clear implication of today's (Monday's) statement is that the Postal Service intended all along to close these facilities, regardless of public opinion.

"Given that public comment about these closures has been overwhelmingly negative, this type of interference with the public comment period is inappropriate and unacceptable."

Tester is right.

No one quarrels with USPS's need to save money and/or make more money. The highly regulated — but not taxpayer supported — company has taken a financial beating in recent years as more and more Americans shift their correspondence and bill-paying functions to Internet-based methods.

According to the Postal Service, annual first-class mail volume has declined by 43 billion a year over the past five years. Total first-class mail has dropped 25 percent and single piece first-class mail — letters bearing postage stamps — has declined 36 percent in the same period.

To avoid bankruptcy, the service needs to save $20 billion by 2015, starting with the $2 billion or so a year that would be saved by the aforementioned consolidations. If they go through, about 28,000 Post Office employees would lose their jobs.

Separate from that, the Postal Service also has its eye on closing almost 4,000 post offices and branches, including 85 in Montana, and it plans to raise the first-class mail rate from 44 to 45 cents in January.

All of these steps would help the expense side of the USPS ledger in the short term, but we're not sure how effective downgrading customer service will be as a long-term survival strategy.