Closures will kill, not save, USPS: Meetings to collect public comment appear to have been farce


by Editorial

Just last week the U.S. Postal Service held a hearing in Missoula to discuss its proposal to shut down 252 mail processing centers – that's more than half its mail processing facilities nationwide – including its two centers in Missoula and Kalispell. Meanwhile, the Postal Service will continue to hear public comment on the mail processing facilities in Missoula and Kalispell through mid-December.

So why has the Postal Service already announced its intention to "move forward" with a plan that assumes the closures will take place? Was the move to collect public comments just a farce? Unfortunately, it appears so.

Now, not only is the Postal Service's plan to save roughly $3 billion a year by drastically reducing its mail processing capacity a poor one, the way it is proceeding with these plans is poor as well. Public comment is not just a technical exercise; it is an important tool government agencies must use in order to make sure their operations reflect the will and best interests of the people they serve.

If the Postal Service insists on ignoring the feedback it is still purportedly gathering, it will only make itself less relevant to its customers – and therefore less useful.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said as much in a letter he sent to the Postal Regulatory Commission on Monday.

"By presupposing the closure of processing facilities the Postal Service is violating its legal obligation to fully consider public input before closing these mail centers," Tester wrote, adding, "The clear implication of (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."

Montana's other two congressional delegates – Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg – have also expressed strong support for maintaining current mail service. They understand that public criticism of the proposed closures has been especially negative in places like Montana, where rural residents rely on the independent government agency for the timely delivery of their mail. In fact, not one of the more than 150 people who attended the hearing in Missoula voiced support for the plan.

That's because, in some places in Montana, residents rely on efficient mail delivery for essential business matters, medications and more. Consider, for example, Jim Cloud's situation. Cloud operates Victor-based Ridgeway Mail Order Pharmacy, and earlier this week he told the Missoulian that the closure of the Missoula mail processing center will have a debilitating effect on the state's small businesses – including his own.

"My reaction is – during what's already a very difficult time for small employers, especially in Montana – this is one more kick in the gut," Cloud said. "This is going to affect our bottom line, it will affect our customers, the cost of prescriptions and insurance in Montana."

The U.S. Postal Service, a constitutionally mandated agency that operates without taxpayer support, projects a shortfall of about $10 billion this year, and is working desperately to fill in that gaping financial hole. Part of its solution involves closing mail processing centers, such as the one in Missoula, which would save an estimated $1.2 million. It would also leave 28 employees out of work, and require that overnight mail delivery take two to three days instead, because Missoula's mail would first be routed through Spokane, Wash., for processing.

Other changes announced in Montana include moving Havre mail processing to Great Falls starting in January, and Miles City mail processing to Billings. It may also mean that outgoing mail from Helena and Butte is eventually sent to Great Falls for processing as well. And, as part of its plan to shutter a total of 3,700 post offices, it is studying whether to close more than 90 post offices in Montana.

These changes may save the Postal Service money in the short run, but they come at a tremendous long-term cost, both to customers and to the Postal Service's ability to compete with private mail delivery businesses.

These planned closures will not save the Postal Service. They will kill it. Montanans know this, and it is high time the higher-ups at the Postal Service started listening.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen