NNA questions Donahoe about USPS delivery, service

Apr 10, 2013

BY Tonda F. Rush


ARLINGTON, VA—Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe faced challenges about declining service in rural areas from community newspaper publishers at the National Newspaper Association Postal Summit on March 14.

After explaining that USPS projected increasing operating deficits through 2015 without congressional action, Donahoe recited a list of actions USPS is taking to reduce cost—closing post offices and mail processing facilities, and fighting to be granted the right by Congress to deliver most mail only five days a week.

His recital drew a question from NNA past president Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, MN. Anfinson listed the impacts upon smaller communities from the service reductions.

“What we are looking at in rural America is the combined impact of the loss of Saturday mail and the closing of nearby mail processing centers. The combined impact not only will hurt our newspapers, but our communities as whole. It will make economic development more difficult when it takes two or three days to turn mail around.

“Also, how long is the Postal Service going to drive by 15 rural mailboxes to deliver to one at the end of a route? Before long it will decide that these routes are not profitable.”

“What happens to rural America in a few years when the numbers don’t add up? We become a very second class customer of the Postal Service.”

Donahoe said, “I would say to you that going forward around the ability to keep those costs down is our ability to keep both the costs of labor and transportation down. We face the same issues anybody else faces with the increased cost of fuel, the increased cost of employment, health care and those kinds of things.

“The fact that rural America is suffering to some extent that is something I really can’t answer for you,” Donahoe told publishers. “It is an issue that when you look at the postal service, we have tried our best between what we have done with trying to change cost of the rural delivery structure to keep it as affordable as possible. But at some point when people won’t budget on any of those other things, we had better make some infrastructure decisions, and we have done that.”

(Those infrastructure changes include combining routes, closing mail processing centers, reducing days of delivery and cutting post office hours.)

Anfinson said, “Then what we see is universal service for rural America fading away.”

“I don’t see it that way,” Donahoe responded. “The fact that we will deliver five days a week and have post offices open six days a week, is probably better than anybody else can provide. The other thing we have tried to do as we work through this thing is work through local stores so the stores can stay open—the village post office. That has been on our own. Nobody has asked us to do that. We realize that we are an important part of rural America.”

“I feel very responsible for universal service, but with everything else, we have to figure out how in the world we pay for it,” Donahoe said. “That is the problem.”

But David E. Williams, vice president of network operations for USPS, gave a somewhat more hopeful picture. USPS is nearly 60 percent finished with the closing or downsizing of half of its mail processing facilities, he said, and will continue for years ahead having to shape its infrastructure to the mail volume.

But he promised that in the place of some closing plants, USPS would set up transportation hubs to help route some mail directly to post offices rather than driving it miles out of the way to gaining postal facilities. A working group of the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee, where NNA is represented, is being set up to help develop those solutions. He accepted several questions from publishers about mail service problems and promised responses.

USPS has recently announced that it intends to eliminate six-day mail delivery on Aug. 5, though it wants to continue to deliver parcels. But Congress currently requires six-day mail delivery and is expected to renew that requirement at least through the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The postmaster general also said he wants authority to pull postal employees out of federal health care programs and to bargain for their own plan, something the federal government has opposed. He also wants permission to engage in sales of non-postal products, give better instructions to labor arbitrators, reform workers compensation rules and initiate other labor reforms.

David C. Williams, the inspector general of USPS, however, pointed to other possibilities to set USPS upright again.

“USPS could save $11 billion with a leaner infrastructure,” he said.

He recommended changing compensation of letter carriers to recognize mail volumes carried rather than hours worked, eliminating doorway mailbox service in favor of cluster boxes and simplifying mail acceptance rules. USPS, he said, has 12,000 prices in its product lines.

But there is no way to avoid the disruption of the older USPS revenue model.

“We see breakthroughs in our culture only every few centuries,” Williams said. “We are in the middle of two of them: digital and global. But our job is not to survive. It is to serve. The question we should be asking is, ‘where do people need help?’ People want multichannel communication, but they need to be able to curate, store and retrieve messages. They want to be able to take their addresses with them, and the Postal Service can help with that.”

He said he favored systems that permit e-mail to interface with the physical mailbox, and to permit post offices to serve broader missions in communications by helping people to integrate their message channels.

“Post offices can be there as human intermediaries when government completely disappears except online,” he said. He also noted evolutions in other countries’ postal administrations, particularly Ireland, which has integrated its system into election processes, and he emphasized the importance of newspapers.

“We need to support you in whatever it takes,” he said. “Newspapers are important to the republic.”