Great Falls Tribune: Tester backs rural post office closure study re-evaluation

The United States Postal Service will not be able to close rural post offices before establishing a more thorough process for selecting closure candidates and re-evaluating the locations being studied for closure, a Senate panel decided Wednesday.

The provision on rural post office closings was added during debate by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the 21st Century Postal Services Act of 2011 — the first major legislative overhaul of the postal service in years.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced the amendment preventing the closure of rural post offices without adequate evaluation. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was among the co-sponsors.

“The postmaster general cannot balance his books on the back of rural America. Montanans have made it clear to me that they depend on their community post offices for reliable mail service, and I won’t let the postal service ignore their voices,” Tester said in a news release following the amendment’s passage.

Tester also presented an amendment that would cut the postmaster general’s salary to the same level as members of Congress — about $174,000 a year. That effort failed.

“If anyone around this table is sitting here because of the money we make, we’re not sitting here for the right reasons,” Tester said. “The postal service is a public service, unless you want to take the ‘U.S.’ off the front of it.”

Opponents argued that the USPS needs to provide comparable pay in order to compete with private companies. Tester said that as part of the government, the USPS should not be focused on large paychecks.

The postmaster general made about $800,000 in total compensation in fiscal year 2010. President Barack Obama receives a salary of $400,000 and an expense account of $50,000 per year.

The proposed postmaster general salary reduction should free enough funds annually to keep five rural Montana post offices open, Tester said.

He said he hopes the amendment he co-sponsored with Moran will provide clarity on why 80 post offices in Montana are among those being considered for closure.

“There’s never been an explanation given at any of (the public hearings in Montana on the issue) as to why a post office is being considered for closure,” Tester said. “This amendment brings some transparency and accountability to the process, and not a moment too soon.”

The move to keep as many rural post offices open as possible was not supported by all members of the panel.

“When you say they can’t close post offices, you’re preventing them from keeping up with the 21st century,” Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain said.

The amended bill would require the USPS to take into account the proximity of other post offices to those proposed for closure. The postal service also would have to look at population density and demographics, the unique transportation needs of areas such as Alaska and Hawaii, and how businesses within communities use their post offices.

“This sets a criterion for which we have some level of ability to determine why us and not somebody else, but more importantly it creates (the chance for the community) to appeal that decision to the postal service,” Moran said. “In addition to that, this amendment requires the postal service to look at other options.”

The options the postmaster general would have to consider other than closing a post office include shortening the hours of operation at locations and co-locating post offices with local businesses, schools or restaurants, Moran said.

Some committee members argued that closing some post offices was inevitable, and that the panel should be cautious not to put too many restraints on the USPS.

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