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A post-Postal Service world?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the last three months of 2012, the United States Postal Service lost $1.3 billion. In the first three months of 2013, it lost $1.9 billion. Officials were heartened, though, by the numbers from April to June of this year - when the Postal Service only lost $740 million.

For years, Postal Service advocates have warned that the monolithic mail delivery service could face extinction in the near future. Email and private competitors have taken a toll, as has a requirement from Congress to pre-fund future health benefits that won't be collected for decades.

So far, the Postal Service continues - although not without changes. Many smaller post offices have closed, and recent attempts by USPS officials to end Saturday delivery met with opposition from letter carriers and politicians alike.

But what if it happened? What if the Postal Service went belly-up, and the ubiquitous blue boxes and white trucks were gone for good?

The idea is so sensitive that representatives of business and government were reluctant to discuss, even hypothetically, what a post-Postal Service world might look like. But some spoke of the difficulties that could arise - particularly in a state where many people still don't use the Internet.

"We offer online billing and online payment. Some customers have gone completely paperless," said Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water. "But the vast majority of our customers receive their bills through the U.S. Postal Service."

In July, a federal study showed that more than 35 percent of West Virginia households don't have a computer - the second-lowest rate of computer ownership in the United States. Just 59 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to high-speed Internet, according to the "Exploring the Digital Nation" study.

"Many people want to see their bills arrive in the mail and their bills go out in the mail. Others prefer to get their bills online. Communications have changed over time," said Frontier Communications spokesman Dan Page, who said he still prefers to get paper bills delivered to his home.

Page noted that the Postal Service also plays a role in package delivery - "You can't deliver packages by broadband," he said - although private companies such as United Parcel Service and FedEx already play a large role in that market.

"In rural areas, seniors depend on the Postal Service to get home delivery. Many seniors can't get out and go to the Post Office like a lot of people can," said Raamie Barker, senior advisor to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

"Postal employees in rural areas also develop a rapport with those people. They know if they are there, or if they are gone. They check on people," Barker said.

Tod Barnette, principal of Sherman High School in Boone County, points out many problems arise in rural areas where technology is not easily available.

"Some students don't have cell phone service or Internet access. Where we don't have this access, many families access their information through the U.S. Postal Service," Barnette said earlier this year.

"Many don't have access to other forms of postal service. You don't send a letter, or pay your bill, using UPS or FedEx. And a lot of them don't have computers. ... That affects a lot of silver-haired folks," Barker said.

More than 40 businesses and groups are part of The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which emphasizes that both large and small businesses rely on mail to deliver their products and to communicate with customers. They include American Express, Bank of America, Eastman Kodak Co., FedEx, the Greeting Card Association, International Paper, National Newspaper Association, Time Warner and Verizon.

Perhaps no business would be affected by a Postal Service collapse more than the greeting card industry.

Shanna Baxter, district manager for Adams Hallmark in Charleston, put it bluntly: "If we didn't have a Postal Service then we would have to close our store," she said.

"There is a tremendous amount of industry and commerce related to the Postal Service," said Rafe Morrissey, vice president of postal affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Greeting Card Association.

"About 60 percent of all greeting cards sold are delivered by the Postal Service. We are obviously eager to see the Postal Service in a path that will allow it to be sustainable and to pursue service quality and rate stability," he said.

Like many Postal Service advocates, Morrisey criticized the "huge pre-funding obligations from the 2006 law, which require the Postal Service to put aside $5.5 billion each year, for the next 10 years, to fund retiree health benefits. That would have been hard under any economic circumstances, but particularly difficult under the Great Recession.

"That is so far out of scope compared to what is required of any other federal agency," Morrisey said.

Tom Hunter, associate state director of AARP West Virginia, said his group is working hard to preserve the USPS.

"U.S. Postal Service letter carriers may be the only contacts for many elderly, disabled or infirm people across the country. Their letter carrier may be the one person they see every day," Hunter said. "AARP understands the need to make the Postal Service more viable in the Internet age. But our members and older Americans depend on the reliable and timely delivery of their mail."

Carrier Alert, a nationwide volunteer program run by the National Association of Letter Carriers, also plays a positive role looking out for people living in isolated homes and communities, Hunter said.

"Postal Service letter carriers work closely with local social service agencies, using the six-day-a-week presence they have to watch out for older and disabled people," Hunter said.

Catalog and magazine publishers also continue to rely on the Postal Service.

John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's Magazine, said, "Not having the U.S. Postal Service would be catastrophic. It would kill the industry. And if you couldn't mail magazines out, the most fanatical Internet nuts could take over.

"Everything looks the same on the screen. One website that is spouting nonsense can look as authoritative as The New York Times or The Charleston Gazette," MacArthur said.

"Magazines would cease to exist. Life without the Postal Service would not only be culturally and financially disastrous. It would also be duller."

But concentrating on the people who use the USPS and rely on it to deliver their mail ignores the more than half a million people who work there.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has been one of the major advocates for the USPS, expressing special concerns to keep post offices operating in rural areas like Southern West Virginia.

To improve the Postal Service's finances, Rahall has co-sponsored legislation to eliminate the "onerous funding requirements" to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund created in 2006.

"West Virginians know better than most that our post offices are neighborhood gatherings spots and can be the heart of communities, giving a small town its own distinctive identity," Rahall told the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

The Postal Service also plays a central role serving "our residents living in remote areas, with limited access to the Internet, many of whom are seniors who, for medical or other reasons, are unable to leave their homes and depend upon reliable and effective mail delivery services," Rahall said.

He and others believe the Postal Service's largest single financial problem was created in 2006, when Congress passed legislation requiring it to set aside tens of billions of dollars for retirement benefits that will not be collected for years. No other federal agency is required to prefund future health benefits for its retired workers.

Citing information provided by the Postal Regulatory Commission and the Postal Service Inspector General, Rahall argues the 2006 mandate overestimates future inflation rates for health care and the future size of the postal workforce.

Rahall wants to pass legislation to reduce or eliminate the 2006 mandate, which would save the Postal Service billions of dollars. He also supports returning previous Postal Service overpayments in pension contributions to help cover costs of future health retirement benefits.     Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgqzette.com or 304-348-5164.


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