USPS needs to find a new service model
With the U.S. Postal Service on the edge of bankruptcy, Postmaster General Patrick Donahue -- backed by the General Accountability Office -- is proposing drastic across-the-board cuts to stabilize the agency.
Preliminary plans include abolishing 3,600 of the agency's 31,000 post offices, mostly in the rural areas, eliminating next-day service, raising rates, stopping Saturday deliveries, and consolidating half of the 500 mail-processing centers.
As one of the most rural states, North Dakota will experience some serious impacts. Around 75 communities will lose their post offices and major processing centers in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Minot will be closed.
The plans have been deferred until next May but they will not disappear unless Congress changes the way it looks at the USPS. The communities in which post offices have been marked for closing need to be vigilant. This deferral is temporary.
In 1970, the Post Office Department was removed from the president's jurisdiction and converted into a self-supporting corporation with freedom to negotiate with unions, to replace the partisan employment system with a career service, and to manage its own finances. The idea was to run the USPS like a business.
The model worked until private services cut into the parcel delivery market and e-mail started taking a good chunk of first class mail. The USPS experienced a 17 percent loss of volume over the last three years.
As the service was slowly sinking into a sea of red ink, it was suddenly required to fund future retiree health benefits at a tune of an extra $5 billion a year. This drove the deficit up and brought on the proposal to take radical action.
After 40 years operating as a business, we have now come face-to-face with the fact that sticking with the present model requires draconian cuts to balance the books and will continue to do so in the decades ahead. Under this business model, eventually all of North Dakota will be going to Carrington to get mail at the last remaining delivery site. That will be about 2020.
To save the present business model and make the cuts, the GAO has suggested that an independent group similar to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission be formed to blunt the political influences that will be involved in the decision-making. In other words, keep Congress out of the kitchen.
If the cuts are made as proposed, the USPS will no longer be able to deliver on its mission as stated in Title 39 of the U.S. Code:
"The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.
Some years ago, when the University Of North Dakota Bureau Of Governmental Affairs was doing some studies on local government efficiencies, our Minneapolis expert made an observation about libraries. He said that libraries cannot be self-sufficient but are an important component in a community's social infrastructure.
The same is true for the USPS. If we are going to have anything like it in the future, we have to quit thinking about it as a business that must break even. We need to see it as a critical component of our social infrastructure. We already accept that principle in the National Park system, the Weather Service, Amtrak, the Armed Forces and a score of other governmental functions.
We may lose money on the specific function but we would gain in the general well-being of the country.
(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)