Federal Diary: The Times Are a-Changin' for Postal Service

By Ed O'Keefe
Friday, October 9, 2009

The U.S. Postal Service lost billions of dollars in revenue during the last fiscal year as the volume of mail plunged. Lawmakers may one day soon consider cutting mail delivery to five days a week. They also may need to sort out how the Postal Service pays for the benefits of current and future retirees.

But most customers only care about one thing: The fate of their neighborhood post office.

On Friday the Postal Service must turn over an updated list to the Postal Regulatory Commission of sites still being considered for closure or consolidation.

Despite the concern and confusion generated by the drawn-out process, Postmaster General John E. Potter believes customers should extend their concern.

"This is part of the problem when it comes to discussing the Postal Service," he told a lunchtime crowd at the National Press Club in Washington. "Because here we are talking about a $5 billion ongoing deficit and we're all wrapped up in an issue that's probably worth on the order of $20 million to $100 million at best."

Closures account for a small piece of Potter's grand plans to remake the U.S. mail system. He's advocated for reducing mail delivery to five days, for a smaller workforce and a greener fleet of vehicles -- and maybe, just maybe, the chance to sell something other than stamps.

"Given the changing use of the mail by the American public -- we're not faulting anyone -- and given what's going on with the economy, we need more flexibility to manage this place so that we can get into the black," Potter said.

He's not involved in the details of possible closures, but Potter said it's unlikely any facility will close before January. He's delegated the other dirty details to district managers and other Washington-based officials.

"Our folks have reached out to communities and will continue to do that, but keep in mind that we're facing a significant gap going forward of $5 billion. So people cannot expect business as usual and that we will be able to fund everything that we currently do," he said.

Potter wants Americans to start talking about how the Postal Service will exist into the next decade and beyond. He wants a national conversation among lawmakers, the mailing industry, consumers and everyone else. Americans will have to consider mail volume, the frequency of delivery and the cost, he said.

The Postal Service operates more retail outlets than Starbucks, Wal-Mart and McDonald's combined, Potter said.

"And we can only sell stamps," he lamented. "I think we're going to have to rationalize. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that we're not going to sell the same number of stamps going forward."

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