The top U.S. Postal Service official on Thursday took his case for rural post office closures straight to those it will hurt most, telling residents in Montana's capital and one of its smallest towns that thousands of post offices nationwide must be shuttered to cut costs.
Rural residents answered right back, saying cuts should be made elsewhere because their post offices provide a much-needed lifeline.
One woman from the southwestern Montana town of Basin told Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe she has no Internet access and relies on the mail. But like many other rural residents, she does not receive mail delivery.
DeDe Rhodes said if her post office closes, the next one is more than 10 miles away, making her regular trip to pick up mail much more costly.
"I need you to really consider what we are saying. People need their rural post offices," Rhodes told Donahoe at a morning gathering in Helena. "Let's look at the urban areas. Maybe they don't need as many post offices because they get their mail delivered right to their door, or at least to the curb."
Some 3,600 small post offices are up for closure. In Montana alone, about 80 small post offices are slated to be shuttered, from Alzada to Zurich.
Donohoe's Montana visit is his first to a local community specifically to hear their concerns about the impact of the proposed closings. In recent months, he has toured postal facilities in dozens of other communities as part of regular visits to survey the Postal Service's vast mail network.
The agency needs to reorganize in part because of a 60 percent decline in the number of people paying bills through the mail and the cost of paying into its employee retirement benefits, Donahoe told the gathering in Helena, which is facing the loss of its mail processing center.
Last year, postal losses totaled $5.1 billion, and those losses are projected to grow.
"We are in a heck of a financial situation. That is why it is so important we move ahead with some of the changes we need to make," Donahoe said. "You have to do something. You can't sit back and wait."
The trip comes as the Senate prepares as early as next week to take up legislation that would slow, if not stop, the Postal Service's plans to close roughly half of the nation's 460 mail processing centers beginning this year. The move would slow first-class mail delivery and, for the first time in 40 years, eliminate the chance for stamped letters to arrive the next day.
In Ingomar, residents said losing their post office could be a deadly blow to the tiny eastern Montana town that began to decline even before the railroad was abandoned in 1920.
Worried residents from small towns as far away as Wyoming swelled Ingomar's numbers to more than double its normal population of about 80. They packed the town's gymnasium and greeted Donahoe with a picnic table piled with home-cooked goods, treating him as a visiting dignitary while urging him to change his mind.
Several tried to persuade him to consider an alternative, including a suggestion that the federal agency charge an annual fee for mail delivery like people pay for a post office box.
Donahoe said that idea had been considered internally, and that a $5 annual fee would raise an extra $800 million in revenue.
"It is not something we have raised to Congress. It is something we have got some pushback on. But it should be considered," Donahoe said.
At the request of Congress, the mail agency previously agreed not to close any facilities before May 15. Donahoe said they agency has to consider competing requests to preserve certain aspects of its services, like six-day delivery, as it weighs a whole slate of reductions that include the closures.
In a report released Thursday, federal auditors stressed that "dramatic changes" were needed to stem the Postal Service's mounting debt and that the agency's proposal to close mail processing centers, estimated to save roughly $3 billion a year, was an important part of accomplishing that goal.
The report by the Government Accountability Office also noted that the proposal to close mail centers faced tough obstacles due to local communities' opposition to the job losses and cutbacks in service. Labor agreements also make layoffs and forced employee transfers difficult, the report said.
The GAO auditors expressed support for elements of a House postal bill that would set up a new commission to make major decisions on postal cuts, including reducing mail delivery to five days a week. They said that if Congress opted to delay or prevent the closing of mail processing centers, lawmakers would have to find other ways to significantly cut postal costs.
In the Senate, a bill would postpone a proposed postal cut to five-day mail delivery by at least two years and require additional review before mail facilities could be closed. In response to concerns from rural states, bill sponsors have been discussing possible additions that could keep many low-revenue post offices and processing centers in rural communities open at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year. That expense would be paid for with a proposed 5-cent increase to a first-class stamp, to 50 cents.
Donahoe said communities on the final closure list will be notified in July and there will be a comment period afterward.
The postmaster general's trip to Montana was spurred by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was met by a group of concerned residents when he passed through Ingomar last year. He promised to bring Donahoe back to answer their questions personally.
Baucus said he is going to use his influential budget-drafting position to push ideas like Rhodes' proposal to close urban post offices. Baucus said there are 50 post offices within a five-mile radius of the U.S. Capitol.
"It just seems to me if we close post offices, those are the folks who can go one mile or two miles extra," Baucus said.
The Postal Service projects its loss this year could be over $14 billion, and without changes could rise to over $21 billion by 2016.
"We cannot allow political interests to trump our responsibility to restore the Postal Service to solvency and protect the taxpayer from picking up the tab for surplus facilities," said Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a sponsor of the House bill.
Online: Potential closures: http://about.usps.com/news/electronic-press-kits/expandedaccess/statelist.htm
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report from Washington.