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Fredric Rolando: The Postal Service issue affects W.Va.

West Virginians have much at stake in the debate over the U.S. Postal Service.

With the Mountain State's numerous small towns and isolated areas, many small businesses needing to send and receive checks on weekends, and a high portion of elderly people who rely heavily on the mail, the state would be greatly affected by a degradation of service.

The good news: That's not necessary.

The Daily Mail's Dec. 3 editorial, "Congress is causing Postal Service losses: Allowing the post office to cut costs should be part of fiscal cliff talks," called for reducing service, given a Postal Service that's "hemorrhaging money."

The paper blamed the Internet, unions, small-town post offices and lawmakers who aren't cutting fast enough. Noting the Postal Service's $15.9 billion in losses for fiscal year 2012, you say Americans have had enough "multibillion-dollar bailouts."

Let's unravel these assertions.

Taxpayers don't fund the Postal Service, which earns its own revenue by selling stamps and other products. Through the mid-2000s, the Postal Service had annual profits in the low billions.

Since 2007, the Postal Service has had an average operating loss of $1.2 billion a year - unsurprising given the worst economy in 80 years. Today, worker productivity and on-time delivery are at record highs.

The oft-cited multibillion-dollar sea of red ink has little to do with the mail and much to do with politics.

In 2006, Congress mandated that the Postal Service do something no other agency or company has to do - pre-fund future retiree health benefits.

Moreover, lawmakers set a highly aggressive level - pre-funding for the next 75 years, paid within a decade.

The mandate accounts for 80 percent of all the Postal Service's red ink. Without it, the Postal Service could readily have weathered the tough economy.

But this artificial crisis has exhausted the agency's savings, borrowing authority and periodic profits, while distracting it from doing what it's always done - develop a business plan to meet the challenges of an evolving society while seizing the opportunities.

The irony is that the Postal Service already has set aside $47 billion for future retiree health benefits - enough to pay these benefits for decades, something no other company can say.

Of the $15.9 billion in fiscal 2012 losses you cite, a small fraction - $2.4 billion - stems from mail delivery. That's down by more than half from fiscal 2011, as the improving economy begins to boost postal finances.

Rather than rushing through a flawed bill in a lame-duck session, the new Congress should start over in January and fix pre-funding.

That would alleviate the crisis atmosphere, letting the postal community focus on developing a forward-looking plan.

Opportunities abound. Although more folks pay bills online, they're also ordering goods online. This exploding e-commerce market already is increasing Postal Service revenue - by 8.7 percent in fiscal 2012 - as even FedEx and UPS turn to its highly efficient network to deliver their packages.

Under a program President George W. Bush began and President Obama continues, letter carriers - of whom one-quarter are military veterans - have voluntarily trained to deliver medicines to residents in several metropolitan areas in event of a biological attack.

The "Carrier Alert" program protects the elderly and disabled living alone.

Letter carriers annually conduct the country's largest single-day food drive, replenishing food banks nationwide - all without a dime of taxpayer money.

It's critical to small businesses, which employ 305,711 West Virginians. It anchors a $1.3 trillion mailing industry providing 7.5 million private-sector jobs - 42,420 in West Virginia.

For 200 years, the Postal Service has faced technological innovations such as the telephone and fax machine, emerging stronger each time.

If lawmakers address pre-funding - rather than reducing services to Americans and their businesses - postal authorities can do so once again.

Rolando is president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

 


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