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Not all post offices should pay their way



Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011
New Hampshire has 222 post offices, about one for every 6,000 residents. That's going to change. In fact, the change has already begun. In 2009, the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service closed the office that oversaw New Hampshire's post offices and consolidated with its counterpart in Portland, Maine. Some New Hampshire post offices should close, but some money-losing offices, especially those in rural areas, should be maintained, even if doing so requires a federal subsidy.

The postal service has since the 1980s operated as an "independent establishment of the executive branch" and, as such, is expected to be self-supporting. For the most part, it is. But in exchange for its monopoly on first and third-class mail, it is charged with providing universal service, which means delivering mail at a loss in many parts of the nation.

Last year, the postal service lost a whopping $8.5 billion and had to borrow from the Treasury at a low interest rate to stay in business.

Some 26,000 of the service's post offices operate at a loss. The service has embarked on a long and cumbersome review of 2,000 of those offices to decide how many to close. By law, it is not allowed to close offices solely because they are losing money. Doing so in some cases makes sense. In other cases - for example, when the nearest alternative post office would be many miles away - a money-losing office shouldn't be closed. The postal service has also floated proposals to reduce delivery to weekdays, an idea that makes no sense when more and more commerce is being done online and goods shipped or mailed.

Some conservatives want to end the postal service's monopoly and let private companies deliver rural mail. Rural residents, of course, would be charged rates commensurate with the cost of delivery. A move in that direction, however, would be a tragic break with history and a breach of the social contract, one that would be economically and sociologically devastating to much of rural America.

If it wants to maintain the national goal of universal service at an affordable price, Congress must be willing to pony up.

The 2,000 offices under scrutiny are only the start. The service will soon begin to analyze another 16,000 money-losing offices and consider some of them for closure. It has no choice. Thanks largely to a communication via the internet, mail volume has dropped by 43 billion pieces in just the last five years, and it continues to fall at the rate of 6 percent per year.

Clearly some offices should be closed. York, Maine, for example, a community of 14,000, has four post offices. Concord, with 42,000 residents, has just two. It may no longer be economically justifiable for adjacent hamlets to each have their own office. Yet when post offices are far apart, closing one could harm business, isolate residents, remove a community hub and burden the elderly .

The service has a list of 491 post offices that it began closing late last year. Only one New Hampshire office, in Bennington, was included. But more will have to go, and some will doubtless be in New Hampshire. The state's congressional delegation should do all it can to make sure the postal service maintains a strong presence in rural New Hampshire.