Citizens express skepticism about postal service consolidation

Helena Independent Record

by Allison Maier

It seemed to be a room with more than 50 individuals against a handful of United States Postal Service officials Tuesday night as the agency attempted to explain the details of its controversial mail processing consolidation proposal to an intensely skeptical audience.

It’s been more than a month since the Postal Service announced plans to look into the feasibility of moving Helena’s mail sorting operations to Great Falls, and the public meeting in the Great Northern Hotel was a means of presenting the preliminary results of the study and collecting community feedback — which turned out to be overwhelmingly negative.

The general message from the members of the public who spoke was that the Postal Service management needs to be more transparent in its operations and the mail processing consolidation plan needs to simply be abandoned.

Kicking off the evening’s proceedings was John DiPeri, the acting manager of a newly consolidated Postal Service administrative district, which includes Montana, North and South Dakota, and parts of Minnesota. As other agency officials have done, he explained that the Postal Service has grappled with financial dilemmas in recent years. He said electronic services, industry competition and the economic recession have contributed to a decline in mail volumes, particularly of the money-making First Class variety. Since the Postal Service is not tax-supported, he said, that means its revenue has taken a hit, with $8.5 billion in losses this year. Rising fuel prices have also made things difficult, he said.

A few individuals, including Keith Allen of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 233, accused the Postal Service of being less than forthcoming about another reason it’s had so many financial issues: a 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that requires the agency to pre-fund pension plans. DiPeri acknowledged that without that requirement — which costs the Postal Service about $5.5 billion a year — it probably wouldn’t be in such a difficult position. The agency hasn’t received much help from Congress to change this, he said.

Regardless of the cause, one of the ways the Postal Service has looked to combat its money problems is through consolidations like the one Helena and Great Falls could experience. About 30 of those moves in the past couple of years have saved $100 million, DiPeri said. The agency is also looking to move Butte and Havre operations to Great Falls, as well as potentially shifting Miles City processing to Billings.

It’s all an attempt to utilize the Postal Service resources in a more efficient manner, DiPeri said, noting that currently underutilized machinery could be moved to the beefed-up processing centers to deal with the increased amount of mail that would be coming through.

The preliminary study results estimate moving Helena operations to Great Falls could save $200,000 a year, DiPeri said. That means mail from Helena will make the 180-mile round trip to Great Falls and back before it is distributed, but DiPeri said this is not expected to have any effect on delivery times, retail services, business mail acceptance or drop shipments.

The crowd’s response could perhaps be summarized by Helena resident Susan Austad’s reaction that service to smaller towns like Lincoln, Augusta or East Helena should see no change in service, either:

“Good luck with that.”

Several individuals in the audience — which included union workers, individuals in charge of company mailings and general members of the public — questioned how that math would work out or what would happen if external factors came into play, such as weather or illness. Resident Carey Burnside said that, even in its current state, the mail is unpredictable. She noted that she sent three Valentines on a Saturday and only one arrived in time for the holiday the following Monday. One has still yet to show up at its destination, she said.

The Helena center currently employs 32 mail-processing employees who sort through 210,000 pieces of mail a day for zip codes beginning in 596. DiPeri admitted that the problem with consolidation is that it means some employees will lose their positions — about seven in this case. He said reassignments would be made in compliance with union collective bargaining agreements and some individuals would be offered early retirement.

DiPeri also admitted that there would likely be some “growing pains” during the transitional phase. But Earline Oseta, a former postmaster in Montana, said she’s experienced these kinds of shifts before and they hardly ever go smoothly.

“This is the capital city, for crying out loud,” she said. “Think of some other way to do it.”

She — and everyone else who spoke — received a round of applause from the audience.

A few people referenced a 2007 consolidation feasibility study in the area that was never officially completed and which DiPeri did not know about. A plethora of additional arguments against the current proposal were made over the course of the meeting, which lasted more than an hour.

The comments will be taken to the Postal Service leadership and a decision on the consolidation should come in mid-June, DiPeri said. He said the amount of feedback showed that the Postal Service was still relevant.

A staff representative for each member of Montana’s congressional delegation was present at the meeting. Prior to the gathering, both senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester had weighed in on the issue.

“Postal Service jobs are critically important in Montana, and Montana post offices are anchors on our main streets,” Baucus said in a statement. “Montanans’ concerns need to be taken into account whenever decisions are made. We rely on these critical jobs and our high quality mail service, and I’ll follow this process closely to make sure Montana doesn’t get short-changed.”

Earlier this month, Tester wrote a letter to U.S. Postmaster Patrick Donahoe noting various concerns he had with consolidation in Montana, including the decision to close the agency’s Big Sky District Office in Billings and move management operations into a district office in Sioux Falls, S.D. He deemed the agency’s “lack of transparency” in its justification of the decision unacceptable, especially with jobs at stake.

He called for detailed analysis of the proposed changes before taking further action on mail processing consolidations. On top of that, he, too, expressed concerns about delays and diminished service.

It might not matter to people in big cities, he wrote, but it would greatly affect Montanans.

“In Montana, like many rural and frontier states, we still rely heavily on our postal carrier to bring us everything from letters from thousands of servicemembers overseas to life-saving medications,” he wrote. “Such burdens should not be placed on rural Americans when too many people are living paycheck to paycheck and many of the unemployed rely on money mailed to them from family members.”

Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch has weighed in as well, noting the effects any delays could have on local elections, in which the use of mail-in and absentee ballots are becoming increasingly common. Her chief of staff, Harper Lawson, came to the Tuesday meeting to repeat the concerns.