Postal deficit may lead to less delivery

Marketplace Staff Jan 5, 2010

Postal deficit may lead to less delivery

Marketplace Staff Jan 5, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Gene Autry, Katherine Hepburn and Mother Theresa probably aren’t often mentioned in the same breath. But the trio does have at least one thing in common this year: Each is set to be recognized on their own postage stamp. ‘Course, most people will probably never see those stamps because, well, many of us don’t really put stuff in the actual mail anymore.

In its last fiscal year, the U.S. Postal Service lost $3.8 billion, which for most companies would be a giant warning to re-think way it does business. But the post office isn’t most companies, as Molly Messick explains from Wyoming Public Radio.

MOLLY MESSICK: Universal service at a universal rate. It’s the key responsibility of the postal service — delivering mail to communities large and small. And that’s why there are more than 36,000 post offices across the country, even in tiny, far-flung towns.

Like this one. Rock River, Wyo., population 235. It’s a ranching community on the open plains.

Doug Lykins is the postmaster here, the only man behind the counter.

DOUG LYKINS: Is there anything liquid, perishable, fragile, potentially hazardous?

CUSTOMER: They’re pistachio nuts.

But even here, one word is never far from mind: deficit.

LYKINS: The revenue in this office is down a little over 9 percent.

That’s from 2008 to 2009, and that’s right on track with the numbers nationally. Now, Lykins is watching costs closer than ever — even basics, like electricity.

LYKINS: The thermostat goes down to about 60 degrees at night. We try to generate as much revenue as we can. When folks come to the counter I encourage them to use priority mail. I offer them delivery confirmation and insurance.

But for the postal service, that’s nickels and dimes. It needs to do something big. Mail volume has plummeted since 2006, thanks to things like e-mail and paying bills online.

Patrick Donahoe is the deputy postmaster general.

PATRICK DONAHOE: What we’re seeing is this. We’ve lost in the three-year time frame 18 percent of the volume.

The postal service has cut more than 1,400 branches and 180,000 jobs in the last decade. But in rural places, it’s a hard sell to close a town post office when there’s no other option for 20 miles, and it goes against the mission of the USPS to hike prices in remote towns. But Donahoe says those post offices can be expensive.

DONAHOE: We’ve got rural post offices out there that we’ll spend $10 in costs for every $1 we take in in revenue.

So what is the postal service to do? The biggest change coming could be in Saturday delivery. The agency is planning to ask Congress to let it stop running mail routes six days a week. Donahoe says that could save $3.5 billion each year. But on a Laramie street, opinions are split.

Ed Schneider: I’m in favor of it. I think, you know, five days a week would be sufficient.

James Dean: If they end Saturday service then you don’t get it ’til Monday, and you needed it on Saturday.

Margot Burkholtz: Oh gosh, they can end it any time.

Anon: A bad idea.

Slightly more official polls, like one from Rasmussen, show that most people would rather see five-day delivery than higher prices or fewer post offices. Donahoe says to end Saturday delivery, the agency needs approval from Congress. Once again, rural mail delivery could be a sticking point.

Here’s Wyoming Senator John Barrasso.

JOHN BARRASSO: People in Wyoming have for years relied on the postal service. From the early days of the Pony Express. And I think it’s very important to have continued delivery six days a week for rural communities in Wyoming.

Barrasso hasn’t made a final judgment about Saturday delivery yet. But the postal service probably shouldn’t count on his vote. Congress could make its decision as early as this spring. In the meantime, the USPS will try to save its bottom line, while keeping the mail moving, all over the country.

In Laramie, Wyo., I’m Molly Messick for Marketplace.

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