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Legislation could aid effort to save Mich. mail centers

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Community officials are fighting to keep three U.S. Postal Service mail processing centers in Michigan open, and new federal legislation could boost their efforts.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and three of his fellow lawmakers introduced the bill — the Rural Postal Act of 2015 — last week.

“People across Michigan and the nation rely on the Postal Service to provide timely home delivery, from elderly Americans who depend on Social Security checks and prescription drugs to small businesses that need time-sensitive documents,” Peters said in a statement. “I’m proud to support this effort to protect the six-day delivery schedule and prevent the closure of rural postal facilities so that every community in Michigan has access to reliable postal services.”

If approved, the legislation would delay the closure of mail processing centers for two years. The postal service plans to shutter three Michigan facilities — one in Kingsford, near Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula, another in Lansing and a third in Oshtemo Township near Kalamazoo.

Peters said if those three centers are closed, only four processing centers will remain in the state.

Postal officials said they welcome the legislation.

“We appreciate the continued focus on postal legislation,” said Sabrina Todd, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service’s Greater Michigan District. “The Postal Service needs comprehensive postal reform that resolves our retiree health benefits prepayment, with full Medicare integration, and returns us to a sustainable financial path.

“We look forward to working with Sen. Peters and other members of Congress to enact comprehensive postal reform.”

Jesus Gonzalez, president of the Michigan Postal Workers Union, applauds the bill too.

“I hope it gets Congress to take a close look at what the Postal Service does and how the economy benefits from it,” he said. “It’s not just jobs, but there’s a whole domino effect to these closures and consolidations.”

Based in Lansing, the union represents more than 1,200 postal workers across the state.

Gonzalez also said he hopes the bill also gets lawmakers thinking how about the agency “can turn into the 21st century Postal Service and become more reliable.”

“That’s all anyone in any industry is looking for,” he said. “Not to degrade something and charge more for it. No business will succeed in that venture.”

Community officials say closing the processing centers will slow delivery times for residents.

“Our center services all of the mail for the entire Upper Peninsula from Sault Ste. Marie to Ironwood and up to Calumet in the north,” said Anthony Edlebeck, Kingsford’s city manager and clerk. “We’ve been accustomed to one-day first-class mail service throughout the region for years, but sending mail to Green Bay means service potentially would go to 3-5 day service.”

He said the postal service plans to close the Kingsford facility and send mail a 100 miles south to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for processing.

For the last three years, Edlebeck has been working to save his city’s processing center, rallying county officials and lobbying the state’s congressional representatives. Closing the facility won’t just create problems for Kingsford, but for the Upper Peninsula as a whole, he said.

Many rural places in the region still don’t have high-speed Internet access and businesses and consumers rely on the postal service, Edlebeck said.

“For a lot of people, they may use the Internet and other means of communicating, but the mail is still the means for them to do their billing and so forth,” he said.

Another concern, Edlebeck said, is that many communities, businesses and residents in the Upper Peninsula rely on the mail to send samples of their well water to be analyzed.

“Once the samples are collected, they have to be cultured and analyzed in a laboratory within 36 hours,” he said. “Anything less than one-day mail service is going to affect that.”

Since the postal service doesn’t receive tax money to cover its operating costs, its funding depends on the the sale of its products and services. Between 2011 and 2014, the postal service lost an estimated $26 billion in revenue due to a decline in mail volume, rising costs and debt, according to officials.

In 2012 and 2013, it consolidated 141 mail processing facilities to save $865 million a year. Processing centers in Gaylord, Jackson and Saginaw were among them.

The postal service halted the closures until June 2014, when it announced plans to resume its consolidation — targeting up to 82 other mail processing facilities, including the Kingsford, Lansing and Oshtemo Township centers.

Closures started in January and are supposed to be finished by fall. Postal officials estimate the agency will save an additional $750 million a year once the process is completed.

In addition to a two-year moratorium on closing mail processing facilities, Peters said his legislation aims to improve mail delivery standards. It also would enable communities to petition to undo the closures or the reduction of operating hours of rural post offices, as well as establish a “chief morale officer” in the department to oversee working conditions, staffing, training and communications.

Peters said his bill also would permanently preserve Saturday mail service instead of requiring the government to set aside money annually for weekend service.

He introduced the bill with Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

“Mail is a critical lifeline in rural America,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “(This) bill aims to address the needs of rural families and postal employees ... This isn’t the final step to fixing all the problems with the Postal Service, but any effort to do so needs to include these kinds of protections and support for rural America.”

cramirez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2058