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Goodbye, Saturday mail service? Utahns react
Changes » The agency says it plans to switch to five-day-a-week deliveries.
First Published Feb 06 2013 06:48 am • Last Updated Feb 07 2013 08:51 am

Saturday mail could soon go the way of the Pony Express and twice-a-day delivery.

The Postal Service said Wednesday that by August it plans to cut back to five-day-a-week deliveries for everything except packages to ease its financial losses in a world radically re-ordered by the Internet.

At a glance

Details of proposed cuts

Mail » Saturday delivery of mail such as letters and magazines going to street addresses would end in August.

P.O. boxes » Mail addressed to them would be delivered on Saturdays.

Post offices » Those now open on Saturdays would remain open.

Packages » Delivery of parcels of all sizes would remain the same, i.e., six days a week.

Start date » The change would begin the week of Aug. 5.

Savings » Postal officials said the cutback would save around $2 billion annually when fully in place.

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In Utah, news of the proposed changes is being met with equal parts of relief by those in rural areas, indifference by many business owners who say they no longer rely on the postal system, and resignation by at least one member of the state’s congressional delegation, who sees no other way out for the beleaguered agency.

"Unfortunately most of my packages are delivered by FedEx or UPS, which is one of the reasons the Postal Service is in trouble," said Vonnie Wildfoerster, owner of the Salt Lake City yarn store, Black Sheep Wool Co. "I feel guilty, but at least I’m still sending letters by regular mail."

The Postal Service, which suffered a $15.9 billion loss in the past budget year, said it expected to save $2 billion annually with the Saturday cutback. Mail such as letters and magazines would be affected. Delivery of packages of all sizes would continue six days a week.

But there was no mistaking the acute nature of the agency’s action. "Our financial condition is urgent," declared Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. But Congress has voted in the past to bar the idea of eliminating Saturday delivery, and his announcement immediately drew protests from some lawmakers nationally. The plan, which is to take effect in August, also brought vigorous objections from the letter carriers’ union and others.

The plan accentuates one of the agency’s strong points. Package delivery has increased by 14 percent since 2010, officials say, while the delivery of letters and other mail has plummeted. Email has decreased the mailing of paper letters, but online purchases have increased package shipping, forcing the Postal Service to adjust to customers’ new habits.

"Things change," Donahoe said.

In fact, the Postal Service has had to adapt to changing times ever since Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general by the Continental Congress in 1775. The Pony Express began in 1860, six-day delivery started in 1863, and airmail became the mode in 1918. Twice-a-day delivery was cut to one in 1950 to save money.

But change is not the biggest factor in the agency’s predicament — Congress is. The majority of the service’s red ink comes from a 2006 law forcing it to pay $11 billion a year into future retiree health benefits, something no other agency does. Without that and related labor expenses, the mail agency sustained an operating loss of $2.4 billion last year, lower than the previous year.

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Congress also has stymied the service’s efforts to close some post offices in small towns.

Under the new plan, mail would be delivered to homes and businesses only from Monday through Friday but would still be delivered to post office boxes on Saturdays. Post offices now open on Saturdays would remain open — good news for many in rural areas, where most are open that day.

Hanksville Mayor Stan Alvey said keeping the post office open on Saturdays in his tiny Wayne County community is important to residents and businesses that are more dependent on postal deliveries than their big-city neighbors.

Last year, Hanksville (pop. 200) was one of 13 rural Utah towns whose post offices were among hundreds nationally threatened with closure to cut costs. But at public gatherings, many rural mayors and others protested, saying post offices were one of the few lifelines available to farmers, the elderly and businesses in hamlets.

"We never understood why rural areas were singled out in the first place," said Alvey. "The nearest post office to us is 50 miles away."

Over the past several years, the Postal Service has advocated shifting to a five-day delivery schedule for mail and packages — and it repeatedly but unsuccessfully has appealed to Congress to approve the move. An independent agency, the service gets no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control.

The proposed change is based on what appears to be a legal loophole — and that may be a gamble. Congress has long included a ban on five-day-only delivery in its spending bills, but because the federal government is now operating under a temporary spending measure rather than an appropriations bill, Donahoe says it’s the agency’s interpretation that it can make the change itself.

"This is not like a ‘gotcha’ or anything like that," he said. The agency essentially wants Congress to keep the ban out of any new spending bill after the temporary measure expires March 27.

Two Republican lawmakers said they had sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate in support of the elimination of Saturday mail. It’s "common-sense reform," wrote Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the only member of Utah’s congressional delegation who spoke out against closing rural post offices, said he has no big objections to the new plan.

"This is a financial necessity," said Chaffetz. "There’s a concern about people getting medicines on Saturdays, but keeping post offices open and delivering packages on Saturdays is a step in the right direction, and over time, I don’t think many people are going to miss the Saturday home deliveries."

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