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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 26, 2011

It’s time to stop shredding the U.S. Postal Service

As our nation’s postal service nears insolvency, we are feeling the effects locally. This month, we’ve heard the outcry from two communities we cover — Clarksville and Guilderland Center — as residents in each place, faced with the prospects of their post offices closing, attest to their value.

As planners locally and across the nation tout New Urbanism and the building of walkable clustered communities, we who live or work in Altamont can attest to the worth of such plans. We can easily walk to the post office, the bank, and the library. This is good for our health and good for the health of our planet.

It also engenders a sense of community. “Location, location, location is true,” said a local Realtor on the value of village homes, as reported in our spring real-estate section this week. School districts and a sense of community are the top two draws, he said.

Residents who attended a forum in Guilderland Center last week, referred to the post office as the hub of their small community and expressed dismay at having to drive four miles to get and send mail at the Altamont Post Office.

“Taking away the post office is taking away our identity,” said Allen Jager, pastor of the Helderberg Reformed Church in Guilderland Center.

The acting postmaster said that the elderly were kept track of through the post office; if someone doesn’t show up for mail for a day or two, that person is checked on.

Earlier this month, Clarksville residents expressed similar concerns at having to drive to the post office in Feura Bush five miles away. Many residents in that rural area of New Scotland have small businesses and rely on having a convenient post office, said the town’s supervisor, Thomas Dolin.

Clarksville just suffered a blow to its sense of community when, in March, the Bethlehem School Board, in a cost-saving measure, voted to close Clarksville’s elementary school next year.

The closure of the post office, “coupled with the closing of the school,” Dolin told our reporter Saranac Hale Spencer, “it’s really a devastating thing for the federal government to do.”

Therein lies the problem. The U. S. Postal Service is a government-business hybrid, confined by legislation in the way its private-sector competitors, like FedEx and United Parcel Service, are not.

Although its roots go back to 1775, set up in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, the Post Office Department was created as part of the United States Cabinet in 1792. But in 1971, under the Postal Reorganization Act, the U. S. Postal Service was set up as an independent establishment of the executive branch, making it self-sufficient and not dependent on taxpayer dollars. Rather, it is funded almost entirely by postage. It has exclusive access to letterboxes marked “U. S. Mail,” and it is obligated to serve all Americans at uniform price and quality, regardless of geography.

But, with the increased use of electronic mail and the subsequent decrease of first-class mail, the postal service is now borrowing money from the U. S. Treasury to pay its deficits and is making cuts and proposing others.

On May 19, the postmaster general, Patrick R. Donahoe, told a Senate subcommittee, “Despite our significant role in the American economy and our aggressive cost cutting and revenue generating efforts, I regret to say we are in a serious financial predicament today.” He also said that sometime next year it may not be able to pay its employees — they number close to 600,000 — and could come to a “grinding halt.”

Unlike other federal agencies, the postal service, due to a mandate in a 2006 law, is required to prefund retiree health benefits, totaling about $5.5 billion. For several years, the postal service has asked Congress to alter the payment schedule. The postal service has also asked for access to overpayments it made to the Civil Service Retirement System — totaling $50 billion to $75 billion — and to the Federal Employees Retirement System — totaling nearly $7 billion.

Donahoe told the subcommittee that, with the right legislation, the postal service could return to profitability. We urge Congress to act on his recommendations, which will at least buy time for the post office to right itself.

In the long run, though, it needs more flexibility. Simply closing post offices, cutting services, and raising rates is not a plan for a viable future.

The postal service has been stymied from progressing in the digital age by the government itself. According to a Government Accountability Office report that is more than a decade old, from September 2000, the postal service identified an electronic mailbox, a concept then in the early development stage, that could link electronic and physical addresses, as an infrastructure initiative. The service also introduced an eBillPay initiative, an electronic bill payment service in April 2000. The next month, it introduced the PosteCS initiative, an Internet-based global document delivery system.

Congress denied the postal service’s request to start these electronic initiatives, saying it should refrain from direct competition with private firms. Private companies have, indeed, taken on similar projects and prospered.

If the postal service is to survive and prosper, the government needs to allow it to retool for the future. Otherwise, the Internet will have done what neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night could not — stayed the postal couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

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