The local post office long has been the center of many American communities, but with people turning increasingly to the Internet to send messages and pay bills, financial losses are forcing the Postal Service to consider consolidating or closing hundreds of local facilities.
The post office is facing a $7 billion loss this year despite a 2-cent rate increase. The agency has shed 150,000 workers since 2000, removed hundreds of mail collection boxes and taken other steps to save money.
Now the agency has sent a list of nearly 700 potential candidates for closing or consolidation to the independent Postal Regulatory Commission for review, and officials say more may be added.
Some of the offices could be closed while others might have some of their functions consolidated with other offices. For example, in some cases preparing mail for delivery may be shifted from Office A to nearby Office B, but the first office still might offer services such as selling stamps and mailing parcels and letters. In other cases one of the offices might be closed.
Postal Vice President Jordan Small told a congressional subcommittee that local managers will study activities of approximately 3,200 stations and branches across the country, considering factors such as customer access, service standards, cost savings, impact on employees, environmental impact, real estate values and long-term Postal Service needs.
No changes are expected before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
There are 32,741 post offices across the country.
"We anticipate that out of these 3,200 stations and branches (being reviewed), under 1,000 offices could be considered as viable candidates to study further" for closing, Small said.
In addition to the switch of business to the Internet, the recession has hurt the post office by reducing advertising mail. Last year's high gas prices also siphoned millions of dollars from its coffers.
Just last week the Government Accountability Office added the Postal Service to its list of troubled agencies, saying there are serious and significant structural financial challenges currently facing the agency.
"Every major postal policy, from employee pay, to days of delivery, to the closing of postal facilities must be on the table. Without major change, the day will soon come when the Postal Service will be unable to pay its bills," the GAO said.
Congress is considering a bill to change the way the post office funds its retiree health benefits over the next two years that could save $2 billion annually.
In addition, Postmaster General John Potter has asked Congress for permission to reduce mail deliveries from six days a week to five.
Last year, mail volume fell by 9.5 billion pieces to a total of 203 billion pieces. It is expected to fall by 28 billion pieces this year to a total of 175 billion pieces.
At the same time population growth and new business mean the post office has to serve 1.2 million new addresses every year.
While Congress votes money for free mail delivery for the blind and to offer reduced rates to charities, the post office does not receive taxpayer funds for its operations.
On the Net:
List of postal stations: http://tinyurl.com/m5v32m
U.S. Postal Service: http://www.usps.com