Postal Service agrees to 5-month moratorium on office closures

Billings Gazette

by Mike Dennison

HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday said the U.S. Postal Service has agreed to postpone any decisions on closing offices and mail-processing centers until May 2012, to give Congress a chance to help the USPS tackle its crushing debt.

Tester, a Democrat, said the agreement stems from a meeting that he and several other senators, most of them from rural states, had Monday with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.

"He said he was confined by all of these rules," Tester told the Gazette State Bureau in an interview Tuesday. "We said we're the ones who set the rules, so give us a chance to fix them."

The Postal Service announced a five-month moratorium on closing any postal facilities, until May 15 next year.

Tester called Tuesday's announcement "a win for Montana," but said it still means Congress must find a bipartisan solution to enable the USPS to reduce its costs and debt.

"This may be one of those issues where people will work together and it will pass pretty heavily," he said.

The Postal Service announced last week it likely would proceed with plans to close 260 mail-processing centers and as many as 3,700 post offices next year, in an effort to cut costs.

The Postal Service lost $5 billion this year and owes another $5.5 billion to a  retirees' health care fund, as well as future health-care payments until 2016. Its losses are tied largely to a big drop-off in first class mail traffic, as more and more communication takes place via email and the Internet.

In Montana, mail-processing centers in Missoula, Kalispell, Helena, Wolf Point and Butte are on the chopping block, as well as 85 rural post offices in small towns across the state.

Tester and other members of Montana's congressional delegation have loudly opposed the closures, saying they will cost jobs and hurt mail service in rural areas.

"Some of the things (the postmaster) is advocating are pretty draconian for rural America," he said. "We told him … that you need to give time for Congress to act  — that this wasn't his decision (and) that the Post Office belongs to everybody."

Both Tester and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., have sponsored bills or amendments to bills that would block some of the proposed closures of postal facilities.

Tester, a member of the Senate panel that oversees the Postal Service, said he's hopeful Congress can agree on some of the things needed to help the USPS solve its financial problems.

Those include reducing or eliminating the required "pre-funding" payments for retirees' health benefits, giving the Postal Service more flexibility on setting rates and what services it can offer, and removing bans on what types of things it can ship, such as alcoholic beverages, he said.

Tester said he feared the closures proposed by the Postal Service could start a death spiral for the service, which is vital for rural America. Once post offices and mail-processing centers are closed, they probably wouldn't reopen, he said, and rural America depends on prompt mail delivery for many things, such as prescription drugs and newspapers.

Baucus said Tuesday he's glad that Congress has found more time to find a solution, and that closing postal facilities in Montana won't create the savings needed for a "long-term solution."