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Angie Wieck, Published February 06 2013

Many see end to Saturday mail delivery as ‘good idea’

FARGO - The U.S. Postal Service delivered bad news to some of its customers Wednesday when it announced it would eliminate Saturday delivery of letters in August.

But a majority of people approached at the downtown Fargo Post Office didn’t think the change would have much effect on them.

“If it will save $2 billion, I think it’s a good idea,” said Bonita Carlson, of Fargo.

Another customer added, “What does it matter? It’s all junk mail now anyways.”

Even Rob Hosford, a recently retired Postal Service employee from Fargo, thinks cutting Saturday service might be a good idea.

He sees the change as necessary so the agency can compete with businesses such as UPS and Federal Express that are not encumbered by the expense of mandatory six-day delivery to homes and businesses.

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 and delivery to post office boxes would continue six days a week.

“Our financial condition is urgent,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said. His announcement immediately drew protests from some lawmakers. The plan also brought vigorous objections from farmers, the letter carriers’ union and others.

Fargo Postmaster Greg Johnson wasn’t surprised by the announcement.

“It’s not new news or surprise news,” he said. “It’s some news that it looks like they’re trying to put finality to it versus just talk.”

While details of the plan are scarce, Johnson does not see an imminent threat to career postal employees in Fargo. He believes retirements and possible buyouts will prevent the need for layoffs.

The change is expected to have the biggest effect on people in rural areas.

The National Farmers Union said “impacts on rural America will be particularly harmful.”

It has people like George Kohn wondering how he will get his Saturday Forum newspaper. He now receives the Saturday paper in the mail, but his Sunday paper is delivered by a carrier to his home near Audubon, Minn.

He hopes the carrier will also be able to deliver Saturday.

Forum Circulation Director Curt Christensen has been studying the possibility of five-day mail delivery for years.

An estimated 7,000 Forum subscribers get their newspaper by mail on the same day of publication. Christensen said it appears the change would not affect 1,000 of those subscribers who get newspapers in their post office box. That leaves about 6,000 rural subscribers affected.

Christensen sympathized with the challenges faced by the Postal Service. Many are similar to those faced by the newspaper industry. The volume of mail has decreased with the rise in online correspondence. Similarly, the news industry has lost subscribers to those who get their news online.

While he understands the agency cannot continue to operate in the red, Christensen hopes the Postal Service and Congress can come up with alternatives to ending Saturday delivery.

If it does happen, Christensen said The Forum will continue to study other delivery methods.

“There are some newspapers that have decided not to print the paper every day, and it’s a path I don’t like to see, either,” he said. “News flow does not skip a day.”

The majority of the service’s red ink comes from a 2006 law forcing it to pay about $5.5 billion a year into future retiree health benefits, something no other agency does. Without that payment – $11.1 billion in a two-year installment last year – and related labor expenses, the mail agency sustained an operating loss of

$2.4 billion for the past fiscal year, lower than the previous year.

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.

But Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich called it “bad news for Alaskans and small-business owners” who he said need timely delivery to rural areas.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was disappointed, questioned the savings estimate and worried the loss of Saturday service might drive customers away.

President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the White House learned only Tuesday about the agency’s decision to cut Saturday service. He said the White House is still evaluating the decision but would have preferred its own comprehensive overhaul package that failed to pass Congress last year be adopted “for the sake of a stronger future Postal Service.”

The president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredric Rolando, said the cutback is “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” particularly businesses, rural communities, the elderly, the disabled and others who depend on Saturday delivery for commerce and communication.

He said the maneuver by Donahoe to make the change “flouts the will of Congress, as expressed annually over the past 30 years in legislation that mandates six-day delivery.”


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The Associated Press contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Angie Wieck at (701) 241-5501