Guest editorial: Rural post offices catch a break
This one's worth delivering overnight: Put an Express Mail stamp on the Postal Service's latest plan, and drop it off at the nearest post office.
Which, it looks like, will be kept open after all, thanks to the promising new plan.
The Postal Service came up with a creative and cost-effective proposal to keep open America's rural post offices. The community institutions play a much different and more essential role in small towns than they do in big cities, as the Postal Service recognized.
The agency "said Wednesday it is abandoning plans to close thousands of post offices and instead will drastically reduce hours at most of its rural outposts, a change that will affect about a third of the country's retail mail network," the Washington Post reported.
"Postal officials, bowing to community and congressional pressure to keep rural service afloat as the debt-ridden agency cuts costs, said they will offer early retirement incentives to tens of thousands of postmasters. The result will be a dramatic change for customers: Window hours will drop from the current eight to as few as two a day."
Meanwhile, by replacing full-time postmasters with part-time workers, the plan will save some $500 million a year in labor costs, the newspaper reported.
That's more than the $200 million postal officials had estimated would be saved by closing 3,700 post offices in rural, suburban and urban areas.
Reduced hours are a whole lot better than no hours at all, mostly because the change means rural mail deliveries won't be as affected.
One of the big fears of closing so many post offices was that people who get prescription drugs and other vital products by mail wouldn't get them on time.
Among those hailing the Postal Service's new announcement is Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
"I'm pleased to hear that the Postmaster General decided to listen to the concerns of folks across Minnesota and keep these rural post offices open," Franken said Wednesday.
"I will keep fighting to preserve postal facility jobs, restore financial stability and make sure reliable postal service is available to all Minnesotans."
That "keep fighting" pledge is important, because the new policy's other benefit is that it buys time: time for Congress and the American people to reform the Postal Service and get its finances back in shape.
That's not an impossible dream. There are ways for the Postal Service to lower costs while keeping the coast-to-coast, universal-service mandate that dates back to the Constitution itself.
Lowering labor costs -- 80 percent of the Postal Service's expenses -- is one, as the plan to use more part-timers in rural post offices shows. A two-tiered structure that pays less to new workers also should be considered.
Congress should give Postal Service managers the flexibility they need to bring such changes about.
All in all, the Postal Service deserves credit for listening to rural America and finding a way to answer residents' concerns.
If "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" can do it, we should have known that budget problems wouldn't "stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."