GAO: Montana mail service has suffered since 2011 cutbacks
By Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

Government cutbacks have slowed mail delivery across Montana, according to a federal report issued Tuesday.

Delivery service across much of the state slipped a day or more for first class mail and periodicals after the U.S. Postal Service lowered delivery standards and closed five Montana mail processing facilities according to the Government Accountability Office.

USPS customers told the Billings Gazette mail service has worsened since USPS began cutbacks in 2011. The Postal Service, Responding to the GAO, said severe winter weather had a lot to do with delivery delays in late 2013 and early 2014.

“From Oct. 1, 2013, to March 30, 2014, the Postal Service experienced more than 17,880 flight cancellations due to weather than during the same period the previous year,” said David Williams, USPS vice president of network operations. “Chicago and Billings experienced more than twice the average snowfall.”

Mail traveling farther

But flight delays weren’t the issue for Matt Kleinsasser of Rosebud. The superintendent of Rosebud Schools said the local, same-day service his community once had disappeared when mail previously sorted locally began making the trip to Billings.

“It’s gotten worse, and it’s not because of the local people, it’s the stuff they have to do,” Kleinsasser said. “If I mail something from Rosebud to Forsyth,” 14 miles away, “It will go through Forsyth, to Billings and back to Forsyth.”

Post office hours in Rosebud have been reduced to two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. There are no Saturday hours.

It used to be that mail sent by the Rosebud School District to a local post office box was delivered the same day, Kleinsasser said. The postmaster just stuck the envelope in the right post office box pigeon hole. That no longer happens, he said.

In Philipsburg, the local Philipsburg Mail newspaper has a hard time getting newspapers mailed to its Granite County circulation area. Some newspapers are sent more than 300 miles east to Billings for processing before making it to a roadside mailbox back in Western Montana.

“Most recently, even when we ship to Anaconda addresses,” 30 miles away, “It’s a day late,” said Ann Mullen, Philipsburg Mail publisher.

Since 2011, USPS has closed processing centers in Butte, Havre, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City and Wolf Point. Only communities previously serviced by the Helena processing center saw an across-the-board improvement in one-, two- and three-day delivery, according to GAO. Communities previously served by the other shuttered facilities saw their percent of mail delivered on time decrease, in some cases as much as 11 percent.

Changing mail environment

Postal Service financial problems are real and multiple. As Americans pay more bills and do more business online, mail volume has diminished 55 billion pieces from its 2006 peak of 213 billion.

Congress has also required USPS since 2006 to prefund health benefits for future employees by setting aside $5.5 billion a year. The Postal Service is the only government agency required to pay for benefits for workers who aren’t currently on its payroll. Proponents argue USPS would be in better financial shape if the requirement were lifted, though the decline in mail would still be an issue. In 2012, USPS reported that 25,000 of its 32,000 post offices operated at a loss.

Rural Montanans have been outspoken opponents to USPS cuts. In 2012, the Postal Service considered closing post offices in 85 Montana communities, while reviewing the same option for 3,700 facilities nationwide. Montana was spared post office closures, but hours were cut at 186 facilities.

“Reducing mail delivery standards reduces Americans’ faith in the Postal Service and jeopardizes the service’s future,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, in a prepared statement. “This report shows what almost everyone outside the Postal Service already knows: the service’s efforts to reduce delivery standards are keeping families and businesses from getting the services they need, and the effects are being felt throughout rural America.”

Tester is a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which addresses USPS matters.

There are proposals to cut USPS further. The Postal Service earlier this year revealed plans to cut 15,000 jobs and consolidate more mail processing centers.

Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., has proposed further cuts as a way to save USPS. Republican lawmakers have done the same.

Tester and other senators signed a letter last summer asking that additional Postal Service cuts be stopped for one year.

Tester said any reforms must include strong delivery standards to ensure timely mail delivery.

He wants the requirement of prefunding of retiree benefits reduced and the money channeled into improved service and infrastructure.

Mail needs are changing, and USPS needs the flexibility to adapt, he said.

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