April 19, 2012

Representatives speak in support of Postal Service reform bills | The State Journal

Members of West Virginia's congressional delegation are doing all that they can to save the United States Postal Service.

The agency, which is hemorrhaging money and has scheduled the closure of nearly 4,000 facilities— including 150 in West Virginia — is "what connects us all," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has voiced his support for Senate Bill 1789.

"In our state, we know that the Postal Service is at the very core of what makes this country great and what connects us all," Manchin said on the Senate floor April 19. "In fact, the Postal Service is America — and that is why we are willing to come together across party lines to fight hard to preserve the essential services that the Postal Service provides."

Manchin offered an amendment to SB 1789, the 21st Century Postal Service Act. The bill is an attempt to reform the Postal Service, which reported a debt of $13 billion for fiscal year 2011. In addition to changing the laws governing the operation of the Postal Service, the legislation, if passed, would permit the Postal Service to recoup overpayments to the Federal Employees Retirement System and use those funds for buyouts and early retirement incentives, impose a two-year delay before the elimination of Saturday delivery, reform the government-wide workers' compensation program and allow the Postal Service to offer non-postal products, such as fishing licenses, and to ship beer, wine and distilled spirits.

Earlier this year, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe agreed to hold off on closing any facility until May 15 to give Congress time to work on reform legislation. However, some facilities in West Virginia have already closed, leaving rural communities "severely affected."

Manchin told the story of Delores Wilson of Norton, in Randolph County. Since Wilson's local post office was closed in November, residents of Norton don't have a gathering place.

Manchin said Wilson told him the post office was replaced by cluster boxes which are exposed to the weather and vandals.

"Residents are scared to have their prescription drugs mailed to their home or these boxes. Our community has been severely affected," Manchin said, quoting Wilson. "We used to see each other while getting our mail. Our postmaster would let us know when children were born or neighbors passed away. We collected funds at the post office to help our neighbors in need. Now, we don't have a central location to do that because our small community no longer has its post office."

It's stories like Wilson's, Manchin said, that prompted him to offer an amendment to the bill that would ensure the 3,700 facilities slated for closure remain open for at least two more years while the Postal Service "figures out better ways to get their financial house in order."

"I have offered this amendment because, as I have heard from my constituents, we simply cannot afford to let these facilities close in the communities that need them most."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., has introduced or cosponsored several amendments to the bill. In particular, he signed on to cosponsor Manchin's amendment and another amendment to prohibit bonuses for Postal Service executives. Two amendments he introduced would protect current Postal Service workers, including more than 3,000 in West Virginia, from losing existing or future retiree health care benefits, and another that would prevent the Postal Service from altering the benefits of retirees.

"The Postal Service continues to slash jobs and hurt West Virginia communities through postal closings and consolidations," Rockefeller said. "And West Virginia continues to face disproportionate closures compared to other, much larger states. It's unfair, and I'm doing everything I can to protect these jobs and services."

Rockefeller went on to say that he would "continue to stand up for the workers and retirees so it is reflected in the final bill."

But the Senate isn't the only body working to reform the Postal Service. In March, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced House Resolution 4335, the Postal Service Accountability Act, to empower the Postal Regulatory Commission to block closures that could "adversely impact mail delivery services in the community." Rahall took to the House floor April 19 to urge his colleagues to support the bill and move quickly to address the Postal Service's fiscal problems.

"The Congress must take action in order to stop these closures," Rahall said. "At issue is the basic right of citizens of a community to be heard. We must ensure that the Postal Service's actions are grounded in the best interests of the people it was created to serve."

Rahall also noted that the PRC's December 2011 findings indicate the Postal Service was unable to provide the necessary data to confirm its cost savings projections associated with the postal facilities slated for closure. The commission was also concerned about ensuring alternatives would be available to meet the needs of affected communities before a final decision is made on closing a facility.

"The commission has recently heard appeals on more than 60 individual post office closings," the PRC chairman noted in December. "The records in these cases reveal a pattern of inaccurate and overly optimistic economic savings calculations and of careless disregard of community concerns. While the facts of those cases were not considered by the commission in its advisory opinion, they nevertheless demonstrate an ongoing institutional bias within the postal service that presumes closing small post offices automatically provides cost savings and network efficiencies."

Rahall complained to the Postal Service last year that he felt residents of rural communities weren't given fair treatment at open meetings to discuss possible closures. He alluded to that in his remarks on the House floor.

"Within a two-month period last fall, the USPS Appalachian District scheduled more than 40 public meetings in southern West Virginia, raising doubts that the Postal Service can appropriately manage the public feedback received from each meeting and prepare for continued mail delivery should a closure occur," Rahall said. "In one case, residents said that their post office would be closed before rural delivery was fully established. In other instances, public meetings have been scheduled at inconvenient times, like Halloween night, limiting public participation."

SB 1789 is currently before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, while HR 4335 has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Source: Whitney Burdette