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Editorial: Saving the post office

Amid a mountain of debt and dropping revenues, the U.S. Postal Service announced last week it will cancel Saturday deliveries of first-class mail starting Aug. 5. Axing Saturday’s mail service — the plan would continue package deliveries six days a week, but would not deliver or pick up mail on Saturdays — is expected to save $2 billion a year.

In announcing the move, Postmaster Gen. Patrick Donahoe said Monday the agency has no choice, citing $16 billion in net losses last year, more than triple the previous year’s losses.

Eliminating Saturday mail is part of a larger strategy to return the agency to a firm financial footing, but the projected savings seem to be little more than a stop-gap measure for the cash-strapped agency. Cost-cutting measures like reducing services and closing many postal facilities are crucial if the agency is to survive.

What is needed is for the Postal Service to change its entire business model.

The Postal Service is worth saving. Everyone agrees on this. The 238-year-old agency plays an essential part in the mail and shipping industry. It handles some $1 trillion in financial transactions each year. It employs more than 8 million people.

But since the advent of the digital age in the early 1990s, the agency has seen dramatic changes in the way people communicate, spend their money and pay their bills. For the Postal Service, this has meant a major drop in snail mail volume — from 213 billion pieces of first-class mail in 2006 to 168 billion in 2011 — as online bill-paying and email have become the norm for countless households and companies across the country.

The agency, like businesses and organizations around the globe, has tried to adapt to the demands of this new technology-driven reality, but its proposals have frequently been met with opposition from Congress or the business sector. In 2000, for example, the service established a secure system that provided an online conduit for most Americans’ monthly bill payments, but Congress, under pressure from Internet companies, put the whammy on it.

Such pressure from lawmakers — that any changes made to the service’s operations avoid putting it in competition with private companies — have also complicated the agency’s cost-cutting plans. The Postal Service’s recent decision to stop Saturday mail service could still face challenges from Congress, as well as postal employee unions.

And there’s the rub: On the one hand, the service has the obligations of a government agency — the mail must go through to every household nationwide; on the other, it must operate on the same financial footing as any other business.

Congress and the administration agree that major reforms are needed to help the Postal Service dig out of this massive hole. It reported $3.3 billion in losses in its most recent quarter.

But how to achieve those goals has been mired in dispute. Congressmen who represent rural areas, for example, have criticized bills in both the House and the Senate that would eliminate post offices, stations and processing facilities because of impact on their communities and the jobs that would be lost.

Certainly, most of us don’t want to lose Saturday deliveries, our local post office or other mail services we have come to expect, but something has to give if the institution is to survive. And yet, every proposal put forward by the agency seems to meet resistance from some quarter.

On Monday, more than 100 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Donahoe requesting that more data be obtained before post offices are closed.

We second the call for more solid number-crunching, but believe it should be collected on all aspects of the Postal Service’s operations. A comprehensive analysis of the agency’s fiscal situation and its overall operations is needed before any plan can be expected to turn the massive organization around.

For that to happen, Congress must put aside its political and provisional differences. It must work with, not against, the Postal Service to develop a plan that capitalizes on its main asset: a well-established system for getting mail from one place to another.

That plan may mean changes in delivery days, mailing costs and post office facilities. But the sacrifices that may be called for are worth it to ensure that mailboxes don’t go the way of dinosaurs.

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