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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Congress didn’t do US Postal Service any favors

Guest Commentary

Washington is mucking around in the lives of its citizens. This time, the U.S. Postal Service is getting the attention.

Normally, the post office intersects our lives with the “thunk” of the daily mail delivery or a visit to certify an envelope containing our quarterly tribute to the U.S. Treasury. Beyond that, the USPS runs as it should, quietly and in the background.

Not content to leave something working well alone, our Congress looked at the large number of retiring postal employees and their growing pension and health care liability. It decided to take action.

In 2006, it decreed that the USPS must fully fund these pension and health care liabilities. This means that we, the current postal users, must fund past liabilities, current liabilities and potential future liabilities 75 years into the future, all within 10 years.

In 2011, this means the USPS must pony up $5.5 billion over and above its annual operating expenses. This is the crushing load that drives the post office into the deep red side of the ledger.

Without this payment, the USPS would be operating in the black. So the liability must be funded, but all within 10 years? Congress should restructure the liability payment schedule so it is not crippling.

Our USPS is overseen by the Postal Regulatory Commission. Its current responsibilities were established by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. Over it looms the Congress.

But Congress decreed the price of a first-class stamp could not exceed the rate of inflation, currently 2.1 percent. The Postal Regulatory Commission may override this requirement, which it did not do two years ago. This year, it approved a 1-cent increase.

Gray people in gray suits in gray offices desire to solve this faux problem by cutting expenses, never mind increasing revenues, i.e., more expensive postage stamps. The cuts proposed include closing 3,200 local post offices, eliminating Saturday mail service and slowing first-class mail delivery.

New Hampshire seemingly dodged the bullet on office closures. Only five are proposed for closing out of the 3,600-plus announced. They are in Guild, Lyme Center, Pike, South Tamworth and West Lebanon.

An informal survey conducted among my friends showed the majority favored continued Saturday mail delivery. The only person favoring five-day per week mail delivery was my cynic wife, who declared, “No Saturday mail delivery, that’s one less day to get bills.”

For the rest of us, it means our favorite magazines may be delivered Monday, instead of Saturday. And Sunday is a great reading day.

The loss of a local post office is more than an inconvenience. For bus-riding city dwellers, a closure may well mean an extra 30 minutes transferring from one route to another and back again.

Even for drivers, closures create problems. When the last postal rate increase went into effect, my local grocery store closed its postal window. The new regulations and measuring flats were just too much for the staff, accustomed to selling lottery tickets, handling customer complaints and product returns.

Now I must drive 10 miles round-trip to stand in line to mail my flats, certify mail and deposit my Priority Mail, no more than 13 ounces, please. Terrorists, you know!

It’s been a decade since a nutcase put anthrax spores in envelopes and caused the closure of Brentwood Station in Washington, D.C. Postal patrons are still paying the price in inconvenience.

The last time the postmaster sought a postal rate increase for first-class mail from 44 cents to 46 cents, he was turned down by the Postal Regulatory Commission. But the 17-cent stamp rate went up to 20 cents for greater first-class weights.

One argument was that increasing the basic first-class stamp cost would drive customers into the arms the Internet. Well, many are already there. Now a penny-per-stamp increase, to 45 cents, will occur Jan. 12, 2012.

Considering costs, here are comparable postal rates.

In Canada, where its dollar is about at par with the U.S., 59 cents is the national postal rate, compared with our 44 cents.

For a letter to travel from the U.S. to Canada, the cost is 75 cents. A Canadian letter to the U.S. has a postage rate of CA$1.03.

In the United Kingdom, 69 cents will get your letter delivered. Internationally, a letter from the U.S. to the U.K. will cost 98 cents. Coming this way, a Brit will pay $2.50 for the letter in U.S. dollars.

It appears a more realistic postal rate for first-class mail is the immediate solution to our post office’s problems. Saturday delivery, it’ll cost you.

Herbert Pence, of Manchester, is a retired transit manager.