Postal cutbacks hurt rural outposts the most

10:17 AM, Aug 2, 2012   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) -- The Postal Service, reeling from its failure Wednesday to make a $5.5 billion payment toward employee benefits, continues to move ahead with plans to cut hours at more than 13,000 rural post offices.

The proposed reductions are poised to strike the deepest blows in rural areas, many lacking broadband Internet and reliable cellphone service - places where businesses depend on the mail and residents use mail delivery for everything from prescriptions to correspondence.

"In a way, the communities who need and use the post office the most are being hurt the most," said Evan Kalish, who for the past four years has traveled much of the country visiting post offices and blogs about at-risk and rural postal outposts.

"I call the post office the embodiment of the town. That facet is being devalued, the post office as the community center."

A USA TODAY analysis shows the cuts would strike a line through Appalachia. The states with counties that have the highest concentration of affected offices are on the Appalachian Trail: Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and West Virginia.

In Alaska and some Plains states - Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas - more than 60% of offices are on the block for reductions as counter service drops to six, four or two hours a day.

Most urban areas are not slated to be affected. There are no cutbacks proposed for Chicago, New York or Boston.

Included in the plans:

•In Westmoreland County, Pa., 50 post offices - the most of any single county - could see hours cut. County Commissioner Tyler Courtney said that cutbacks were a given as residents move from former steel-producing centers toward Pittsburgh, but the extent to which services will be eliminated may worry residents. "Some of them are going to come as a real shock to ... the elderly and aging population," he said.

•West Virginia's McDowell County will see the most post offices - 13 - drop to two hours a day. An additional 14 post offices in the former coal-mining center will operate four hours a day.

•In South and North Dakota, about three-quarters of all post offices are on the proposed cutback list.

Mark Schumacher makes boots and saddles in his custom leather shop in Wolsey, S.D., and uses a post office across the street to get his products to customers. It is one of four post offices in Beadle County (population 17,500) slated for cutbacks, with counter service dropping from seven to four hours a day.

"That's a pretty small window for me to get things done," he said. "I could live with it, but I wouldn't want to. If there's one thing the government ought to fund, it should be the post office. They should at least keep the post office running."

The proposed cuts, which affect more than 42% of the Postal Service's nearly 31,000 offices and branches, were a relief for some when announced in May. Last year, the service proposed closing 3,700 post offices.

The "newest Postal Service plan appears to be welcome news for southern West Virginia," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., when the plan was announced in May. "However, cutting back the hours ... is no small matter."

The Postal Service says cuts are needed to match customer use and to save $500 million a year. The Postal Service's net loss was $5.1 billion in 2011. "The financial state of the Postal Service is one of the reasons why (the plan to cut services) is moving forward," spokeswoman Sue Brennan said. The service expects all changes to be made by September 2014.

The $500 million in annual savings from the reductions would be a small dent in the $5.1 billion net loss the Postal Service saw in 2011. The annual losses have hit the service's cash flow: the agency earlier this week projected it would have a $100 million cash shortfall by October.

On Wednesday, the Postal Service defaulted on a $5.5 million payment into a fund for future retiree benefits. Officials have said they also do not have the cash to make a second payment, due in September.

The plan to reduce counter hours won't be sped up by the Postal Service's default, but the financial crunch underscores the need for counter hour reductions, Brennan said. But workers say it is the benefit payments that have created the fiscal crisis. The postal workers union has pushed legislators to ease funding mandates, without movement from Congress.

"We take exception any time the Postal Service is forced to cut service to the American people," union spokeswoman Sally Davidow said. "That's the wrong way to solve the problem."

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