Bending to strong public opposition, the nearly bankrupt U.S. Postal Service backed off a plan to close thousands of rural post offices in Utah and nationally after May 15, and proposed keeping them open, but with shorter operating hours.
Initially, 12 post offices had been scheduled to close in the state, but protests earlier this year centering on the great distances residents would have to travel as a result led postal officials to reduce the number to seven.
The move to halt the shuttering of those seven and nearly 3,700 other low-revenue post offices nationwide followed months of dissent from rural states and their lawmakers, who said the cost-cutting would hurt their communities the most. In recent weeks, rising opposition had led Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to visit some rural areas in a bid to ease fears about cuts that could slow delivery of prescription drugs, newspapers and other services.
In an election year, the angst over postal closings also extended to nearly half the senators, who in letters last week urged Donahoe to postpone closing any mail facility until Congress approves final postal overhaul legislation. The Senate last month passed a bill that would halt many of the closings; the House remains stalled over a separate bill allowing for aggressive cuts.
In Utah, public hearings will be conducted to determine hours of operation for the seven post offices in Emery, Rush Valley, Henrieville, Clawson, Whiterocks, Trenton and Elberta.
"The biggest change is that the post offices won't be closed," said Kent Walker, USPS spokesman for Utah. "Although hours are yet to be determined, they'll remain open and there will still be mail deliveries."
Walker said hours will not be reduced at the five post offices already off the closure list in Garrison, Hanksville, Dutch John, Park Valley and Vernon.
"I'm relieved,"said Emery Mayor Mistie Christiansen. "I had mixed emotions, though. I know we need to balance the budget, but it should be done across the board and make it equal to all taxpaying citizens, not just to those living in outlying areas."
Of the Utah post offices on the initial closure list, residents who use the Emery location would have had to travel the farthest to the next closest if it were closed. "We can live with reduced hours," Christiansen said.
At a news briefing Wednesday, Donahoe said he hoped the latest plan would help allay much of rural America's concern about postal cutbacks. He prodded Congress to act quickly on legislation that will allow the agency to move ahead with its broader multi-billion dollar cost-cutting effort and return to profitability by 2015.
"We've listened to our customers in rural America, and we've heard them loud and clear they want to keep their post office open," he said. "We believe today's announcement will serve our customers' needs and allow us to achieve real savings to help the Postal Service return to long-term financial stability."
Although no post offices would be closed, more than 13,000 rural mail facilities could see reduced operations of two hours to six hours, but only after a review process that is expected to take several months. An additional 4,000 rural post offices would keep their full-time hours.
The agency also will announce new changes next week involving its proposal to close up to 252 mail processing centers.
After the Postal Service gets regulatory approval and hears public input sometime this fall, the new strategy would go into place over two years and be completed in September 2014, saving $500 million a year by reducing full-time staff.
Under the plan, communities would get the option of keeping their area post offices open, but with reduced hours. Another option would be to close a post office in one area while keeping a nearby one open full time. Communities could opt to create a Village Post Office, one set up in a library, government office or store such as Walmart, Walgreens or Office Depot.
"At the end of the day, we will not close rural post offices until we receive community input," said Megan Brennan, the Postal Service's chief operating officer.
The latest move comes as the Postal Service is pushing Congress to pass cost-saving postal legislation that includes an end to Saturday mail delivery.
The Senate-passed bill would give the Postal Service an $11 billion cash infusion but also impose a one-year freeze on shuttering rural post offices. It would cut about half the planned closings of mail processing centers, give affected communities new avenues to appeal closing decisions and bar cuts to Saturday delivery for at least two years.
At the time it was passed, the Postal Service denounced the Senate bill as "totally inappropriate" because it would keep unneeded facilities open.
In the House, hesitancy among rural lawmakers is helping to stall a separate bill that would allow for far more aggressive cuts, including a more immediate end to Saturday delivery.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a co-sponsor of the House bill, said the plan announced Wednesday doesn't cut costs enough. He noted, for instance, that additional cuts can be made in more densely populated urban communities, which should also be prodded to consider Village Post Offices or other alternatives that save money.
"The smallest 10,000 post offices collectively cost USPS less than $600 million to operate each year," he said. "To achieve real savings creating long-term solvency, the Postal Service needs to focus on consolidation in more-populated areas where the greatest opportunities for cost reduction exist."
Most of the 3,700 post offices that had been under review for possible closing had been in rural areas with low volumes of business, with most having only two hours of business a day even though they are open longer. Currently the post office operates more than 31,000 retail outlets.
The agency said its new plan will save more, mostly by weeding out full-time postmasters who don't have labor contract protections and replacing them with part-time workers. It plans to discuss possible buyouts with 13,000 postmasters who are now eligible for retirement. More than 80 percent of postal costs in rural areas are labor-related.
The Postal Service has been grappling with losses as first-class mail volume declines and more people switch to the Internet to communicate and pay bills. The agency has forecast a record $14.1 billion loss by the end of this year; without changes, it said, annual losses will exceed $21 billion by 2016.
If the House fails to act soon, postal officials say, they will face a cash crunch in August and September, when the agency must pay more than $11 billion to the Treasury for future retiree health benefits. Already $13 billion in debt, the health payment obligation will force the agency to run up against its $15 billion debt ceiling, causing it to default on the payments.
The agency plans to release its latest quarterly financial results on Thursday.
Utah post offices
Twelve rural post offices had been earmarked for closure, which would have required residents to travel varying distances to buy stamps or mail packages. In February, five were taken off the list and will not face reduced hours, while the rest were subject to Wednesday's decision. Here's the breakdown:
Spared in February
Garrison •100 miles to Milford
Hanksville • 54 miles to Green River
Dutch John • 44 miles to Manila
Park Valley • 42 miles to Snowville
Vernon • 25 miles to Eureka
Slated for reduced hours
Emery •14 miles to Ferron
Rush Valley • 8.5 miles to Stockton
Henrieville •8 miles to Tropic
Clawson • 5.3 miles to Orangeville
Whiterocks • 5 miles to Fort Duchesne
Trenton • 4.5 miles to Vernon
Elberta • 3.2 miles to Goshen
(Also • Salt Lake Airport station)