washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Postmasters lobby Congress as proposals to cut mail deliveries and close post offices are finalized

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nearly 1,000 postmasters who manage post offices nationwide visited Washington this week to lobby lawmakers and top postal officials as the U.S. Postal Service finalizes proposals to cut mail deliveries and potentially close thousands of post offices because of budget shortfalls.

Postmaster General John E. Potter will formally submit plans to postal regulators next week to cut Saturday mail service, while lawmakers prepare to consider a series of reforms next month. Ahead of those talks, members of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States came to remind lawmakers and top postal bosses of the rank and file's perspective.

The Postal Service owns and operates more than 36,000 post offices and retail branches across the country -- more locations than McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart combined. By law, each U.S. Zip code must have a post office and the mail agency cannot close locations because of poor sales or foot traffic.

But top postal officials want Congress to change that law to more easily shutter locations if necessary. Officials have suggested that as many as 10,000 offices could close.

Postmasters heard Tuesday from lawmakers who will be involved in the early stages of congressional action.

"For many Americans, most of their day-to-day contact with the federal government comes through the Postal Service," said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "As postmasters, you are on the front lines, making sure that this experience is a good one."

"This is a very difficult time," acknowledged Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a member of the oversight panel, which has jurisdiction over postal affairs. "We're going to have to come up with more ways to make sure the Postal Service is viable and strong," he said.

Tony Iezzi, who celebrated 36 1/2 years with the service this week, suggested the agency could afford to lose a few district and regional managers.

Comparing the current management structure to a big, heavy Cadillac, Iezzi said: "They want to downsize the motor to get better miles per gallon. They're not looking at the bigger picture. They need to make the management vehicle smaller."

Hilde Koch runs a four-person post office in Neversink, N.Y., a few miles from the site of the original Woodstock music festival. She joined the mail agency 26 years ago after her neighbors -- a postmaster in one house, a letter carrier in another -- persuaded her to apply.

Koch's staff delivers mail to about 600 addresses while her post office gets about 600 customers per week, on par with the national average. She's concerned that small-town post offices will be cut because they don't generate revenue equal to urban and suburban locations. But while customers and companies might pay to send packages from bigger locations, many of them are delivered to small towns, Koch said.

Customers in rural areas "are the ones that are going to be spending the dollars on the catalogues," she said. Put another way, post offices aren't just collection counters selling stamps and packaging, they also serve as distribution centers and often are "the first line of communication" for customers, she said.

James Dillard agreed. He also runs a four-man shop, delivering mail in and around Toomsuba, Miss., a small town on the eastern edge of the Magnolia State.

"The people come in and you have time to talk to them and ask about their family, their children," he said. Customers bring him vegetables from their gardens, and letter carriers are offered cookies and hot chocolate, Dillard said. Closing his post office would be "devastating" to customers, especially the older ones who can't drive the 20 miles to the next-closest location, he said.

"When I go back, they're going to ask me two things: Are the price of stamps going up, and are they going to close my post office?" Dillard said. "I have to go back with some firm answers."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company