Postal Service plan to cut Saturday delivery draws fire

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

The U.S. Postal Service’s decision to drop Saturday deliveries is getting bad reviews from Montana’s congressional delegation.

Announced Wednesday, the decision to drop Saturday home and business delivery is the quasi-government agency’s latest attempt to deal with a multibillion-dollar hole in its budget. Mail would still be delivered to boxes at the post office. The decision also isn’t sitting well with Congress, which could reject the proposal and in the past has repeatedly mandated six-day service.

“This is an irresponsible change proposed by Postal Service executives that refuse to share in the sacrifice they are demanding of everyday Montanans,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sits on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on postal operations.

“Six-day mail delivery lets folks run their businesses and get everyday necessities,” he said. “And this decision will further slow down mail delivery in Montana and hurt Montana businesses.”

The subcommittee has repeatedly mandated six-day delivery service. The latest mandate expires at the end of March. Tester said his subcommittee plans a hearing Feb. 13 on the future of the U.S. Postal Service.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said the U.S. Postal Service decision showed the disconnect between urban and rural America.

“The postal service is another example of how different the needs of rural states, like Montana, and urban areas are,” Daines said. “It’s clear that the United States Postal Service needs to find ways to get back on solid ground, but they should pursue a priority-based budgeting approach.”

Sweeping post office closures proposed last spring by the USPS angered Sens. Max Baucus and Tester, who said the post offices meant too much to rural Montana communities with few options for shipping. Baucus on Wednesday questioned the fairness of the Saturday delivery cuts. The Senate last year drafted a bipartisan proposal to make the USPS solvent without cutting service days or closing post offices. The House didn’t take up the bill, and the plan stalled. Baucus said the plan should be revived.

“We can’t continue to operate the Postal Service on knee-jerk cuts that put Montana services at risk without solving the real problem,” Baucus said. “We need a real, long-term solution to put the Postal Service back in the black like the compromise the Senate passed last year.”

The Senate plan cut USPS spending $19 billion by 2016 and allowed rural postal service to continue. Responding to rural service concerns, U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe scrapped plans to shutter thousands of rural post offices, and instead cut hours at several thousand more. Last month, the USPS announced hour cuts at 186 Montana post offices as an alternative to closing 85 Montana post offices. Similar cuts in hours were imposed in Wyoming where earlier the USPS had proposed shutting 40 post offices.

No one disputes the U.S. Postal Service is in bad financial shape. Last year, the USPS twice defaulted on federal loans totaling $11 billion. By the middle of March, the USPS expects to have roughly $1 billion in cash on hand, enough to operate for four days. The Postal Service has operated at a loss every year since 2006 when Congress mandated the USPS prefund health care benefits for future retirees.

Demand for postal services is also down. Donahoe has said 25,000 of the service’s 32,000 post offices operate at a loss, and first-class mail volume has fallen 23 percent as consumers turn to email and online billing for their communication needs.

USPS spokesman Pete Norwacki said eliminating Saturday delivery was supported by the public in recent surveys and would help make the Postal Service solvent.

“We’re trying to do things to not have to go to Congress and not have to turn to taxpayers’ wallets,” Norwacki said. “We need to stand on our own.”

The change will narrow shipping options for businesses like, a Miles City business that offers drop-off shipping services and sells Made in Montana products.

In Miles City, UPS offers walk-up service just one hour a day, and Federal Express offers none. That opened a niche for, said manger Julianna TwoBears. For folks who want a package delivered Saturday, the Postal Service is the only option. Boxes dropped off over the weekend will now sit until Monday.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out. Packages won’t be picked up until Monday,” TwoBears said.

Losing Saturday service isn’t ideal, said Jen Elden, who sells Montana-made soap by mail from Whitefish. However, if the change helps the Postal Service remain in business, Elden is for it.

“We do use Saturday service quite a bit. We like that if we have orders coming in the end of the week we can ship on Friday and the Postal Service is moving mail on Saturday,” Elden said.

More important for Elden’s Amalgamated Soap Co. is the Postal Service’s flat-rate shipping option, which makes heavy boxes of soap affordable to ship.

Package shipping has been a growth sector for the Postal Service. Package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials say.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association said the Saturday delivery cut would hurt Montana’s 2,200 postal workers by cutting hours.