Postal Service health is still a concern

While there is little disagreement that the U.S. Postal Service is facing a severe financial crisis, lawmakers voiced concerns on Thursday over the proposed solutions, which include closing some branches and possibly reducing deliveries to five days a week.

GAO this week said it was adding the Postal Service to its list of "high-risk areas" needing attention by Congress.

It said the USPS is facing a "deteriorating financial situation" and is on track to end the year with a net loss of $7 billion. Its financial woes are due to the ailing economy and declining mail volumes as more people and businesses bypass snail mail for e-mail, text messaging and other forms of electronic communications.

Mail volume for fiscal 2008 declined by 9.5 billion pieces and had declined by double that amount for this year as of May.

At a House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce and Postal Service Subcommittee hearing, lawmakers pressed the USPS for details on what criteria would be used in determining which of the proposed 3,200 suburban and urban branches under consideration would be closed.

USPS acting Vice President Jordan Small said fewer than 1,000 post offices out of the list of 3,200 are likely to be closed. The criteria USPS will use in determining whether to close a facility is a branch's proximity to other branches and the consuming habits of postal customers in that area.

He declined to give an estimate of how much would be saved by the closures and by eliminating Saturday deliveries. Small said USPS would have a better sense of the estimated cost savings in October when a study on such moves is complete.

But some lawmakers voiced concern about the potential impacts on their communities. "While I admit, the finances here are very grave ... there is a need to conduct ourselves with, I think, a thoughtful approach ... and do it in a way that causes the least amount of disruption," Federal Workforce and Postal Service Subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said many of his constituents who have long commutes to work would be unable to visit a post office if they are not open in the evening.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., chastised the postal service for taking too long to implement the necessary reforms but then quizzed Small on whether any post offices in Washington are on the list of possible closures. For the most part, business groups dependent on the postal service said they support the proposed changes if they will help ensure USPS's viability.

But they voiced strong opposition to raising postal rates. Noting that the bad economy has hurt their industry as well, "mailers cannot shoulder another rate increase," the Direct Marketing Association's Jerry Cerasale said. Federal Workforce and Postal Service Subcommittee ranking member Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said lawmakers should consider providing USPS with economic stimulus funds and urged USPS to do more to make itself more relevant, perhaps through assisting in conducting the 2010 census.

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