By Marcy Stamper
Notification that collection times at local post offices could change turns out to be a false alarm — for now.
The U.S. Postal Service plans to consolidate about 82 mail processing centers across the country, but the consolidation has been postponed until next year, according to Ernie Swanson, communications programs specialist for the Postal Service. The decision to delay the consolidation of the centers still on the list — they have only completed a dozen so far — was made by postal management in Washington, D.C., on May 27.
The Postal Service plans to carry out the rest of the consolidations in 2016, although no date has been specified, said Swanson. Consolidating the processing centers, called the Network Rationalization Initiative, is a multiphase effort announced in 2011 to balance infrastructure costs with the anticipated decrease in mail volume, according to the Postal Service.
After the Wenatchee center is consolidated, everything going to and from the Methow Valley will go through Spokane. While the Postal Service could preserve overnight delivery for local mail even with the trip to and from Spokane, a separate change made in January to national service standards means that anything mailed from Twisp or Winthrop would take two days to come back to the Methow, said Swanson.
The new service standards eliminate the pledge to deliver first-class mail overnight within a metropolitan area anywhere in the country, replacing it with a two-day standard. The previous standard had been overnight delivery within a metropolitan area, two days within a 600-mile radius, and three days beyond that, said Swanson.
Although the change was effective immediately, it hasn’t affected mail here because mail processing hasn’t changed yet, said Swanson. Under the new standards, only express mail will be delivered the next day.
As mail volumes have dropped over the past decade, the Postal Service has asked Congress to change other specifications that affect the economics of its operations.
A requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund retirement benefits through 2016 — an annual payment of $5.5 billion — has been cited as one factor in its financial difficulties. The service has defaulted on the payments the past three years and does not expect to have the funds to pay this year, either, when the payment is due at the end of September, said Swanson.
The retirement fund already has enough money to cover its commitment to retirees in the immediate future, said Swanson. The Postal Service is asking Congress for a reduced payment schedule and an extension beyond 2016, he said.
Managers of the agency have also been pressing Congress to make other changes they believe could improve their finances. Among their recommendations is eliminating Saturday delivery for all mail but parcels. If that change were approved, people would still receive regular mail in post office boxes on Saturday, but those who get mail delivered to roadside mailboxes would not.
Postal managers also seek authorization to handle the shipping of alcoholic beverages and wine. That business can be quite lucrative, but currently must be handled by a private shipper such as UPS or FedEx, said Swanson.
Managers also believe they could save money by setting up their own employee-health benefit program rather than being part of the federal system, said Swanson.
There have been several bills proposed in both the U.S. House and Senate over the past few years to alter the Postal Service’s business model, but none has advanced very far, said Swanson.
While the Postal Service is a semi-governmental agency, a 1970 law required it to become largely self-sustaining. Despite this quasi-independent status, Congress still has the authority for setting postage rates and operating procedures.