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Postal service ponders closing 43 Mass. outlets amid cutbacks

Posted by Leslie Anderson  July 26, 2011 05:33 PM

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The Postal Service is considering closing 43 retail outlets in Massachusetts, including five each in Boston and Newton, as snail mail inexorably shifts toward the Internet.

The financially-troubled agency announced Tuesday that it will study 3,653 local offices, branches, and stations — more than 1 in 10 of the total — for possible closing. But many of those may be replaced by Village Post Offices in which postal services are offered in local stores, libraries or government offices.

The Newton outlets that are being studied include Newton Lower Falls, Newton Upper Falls, Nonantum, West Newton, and Boston College in Chestnut Hill. The Boston oulets include Grove Hall in Dorchester, Soldiers Field, the State House, Uphams Corner in Dorchester, and Readville in Hyde Park.

The West Newton Post Office is on Waltham Street, just steps from the police station and movie theater. Toward closing time Tuesday, about a dozen people stopped by to pick up and drop off letters and packages.

“You feel like you’re losing all of the community feel when they close all these little branches,’’ said Lynne Georgian, 53, of West Newton.

Other nearby offices on the study list include Babson Park in Wellesley Hills, New Town in Watertown, East Watertown, East Arlington, Arlington Heights, South Waltham, Inman Square in Cambridge, and MIT in Cambridge.

For a complete list of the offices being studied in Massachusetts, go here.

"It's no secret that the Postal Service is looking to change the way we do a lot of things," Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said at a briefing in Washington. "We do feel that we are still relevant to the American public and the economy, but we have to make some tough choices."

Currently the post office operates 31,871 retail outlets across the country, down from 38,000 a decade ago, but in recent years business has declined sharply as first-class mail moved to the Internet. In addition, the recession resulted in a decline in advertising mail, and the agency lost $8 billion last year.

Most of the offices that face review are in rural areas and have low volumes of business. As many as 3,000 post offices have only two hours of business a day even though they are open longer, said postal vice president Dean Granholm.

Coming under review doesn't necessarily mean an office will close. The post office announced in January it was reviewing 1,400 offices for closing. So far 280 have been closed and 200 have finished the review process and will remain open.

Once an office is selected for a review, people served by that office will have 60 days to file their comments. If an office is to be closed, they will be able to appeal to the independent Postal Regulatory Commission.

"This is bitter medicine, but changed times call for a changed Postal Service. With mail volumes declining at a dizzying rate, we need a Postal Service that is leaner, more efficient and less expensive," said Art Sackler, chairman of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a mailing industry group. "The closure of a post office can be difficult, but these avenues must be explored to ensure that the Postal Service and the 8 million private sector jobs that rely on it are able to survive, and that the economy as a whole doesn't take yet another disruptive blow."

The vast majority of sales in post offices are stamp purchases, officials said, and that can easily be handled at the new Village Post Offices. In addition, those offices would accept flat-rate packages and some could provide post office box service. For passports or other more complex services customers would have to go to a remaining regular post office.

Already some 70,000 locations such as supermarkets and department stores sell stamps.

Over the last four years the Postal Service, which does not receive tax funds for its operations, has cut its staff by about 130,000 and reduced costs by $12 billion in an effort to cope with the loss of first class mail to the Internet and the decline in advertising mail caused by the recession. For example, about half of all bill payments are made by Internet now, up from 5 percent a decade ago.

Postal officials have also sought permission from Congress to reduce mail delivery to five-days-a-week and to ease the requirement that they pay $5.5 billion annually into a fund to pre-pay future retiree medical benefits.

Without the $5.5 billion annual pre-payment — which is not required of any other government agency — the post office would have made a profit over the past four years. However, because of the complex way federal finances are structured, the payment is counted as income to the government and eliminating it would make the federal deficit appear to be $5.5 billion larger.

The agency has also suspended payments into its pension fund and eliminated bonuses and performance awards for managers and executives.

Of the 1,400 offices announced for review in January, 620 are still in the review process and 300 will move to the new review list.

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