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Postal Service cuts pinch small Alaska towns

Jennifer GibbinsThe Cordova Times
Aaron Jansen illustration

CORDOVA -- With record losses of nearly $16 billion, the pressure for change at the U.S. Postal Service is intensifying. However, at least one Cordova resident is dismayed by new efficiency measures.

Local business owner, Linee Perkins, has been running a one-woman campaign since October to draw attention to how changes in the U.S Postal Service are affecting Cordova and its economy.

"Like numerous other small rural Alaska communities accessible strictly by air and water, the USPS is our link to the outside world," Perkins wrote in a letter to the Postmaster General of the United States. "Cordovans are issued a post office box and receive items like the newspaper, medicine, eyeglasses, parts & supplies for their businesses, essential tools, underwear, etc. Things that Lower 48 consumers take for granted, we must ship in.

Perkins and her husband own two small businesses in Cordova. "When I mail an invoice to a local customer, I expect it to be received in a day or two. Ideally, the valued customer turns around and mails a check, which is received in a day or two. Without cash flow, we cannot stay in business. Our economy is so seasonal, the cost of living so high. Remember, our city government is counting on taxation of each transaction too," Perkins explained.

'Understaffed and stressed out'

Perkins paints the picture of a post office understaffed and stressed out.

"Understaffed due to attrition, its remaining employees are stressed out. This branch requires more resources, not less," said Perkins.

Since 2006, financial health of the U.S Postal Service has cratered. The Postal Service has reduced its annual costs by about $15 billion and shed about 168,000 jobs since then. However, the picture is not improving, and the pressure is on to speed up the 2013 round of cost-cutting measures before the agency goes bankrupt. Meanwhile, communities across the United States have felt the pinch of staff and service reductions -- and even office closures -- as the agency struggles to become more efficient.

Mail going next door flown to Anchorage

One recent change felt in Cordova and other Alaska communities is a move to consolidate processing of mail in larger facilities equipped with automated sorting equipment. As a result, a letter mailed by Perkins to a client in Cordova, is now flown approximately two hundred miles from Cordova to Anchorage where it is sorted by automated sorting equipment and then flow back to Cordova, where likely the same postal employee who took Perkins's letter at the front counter several days ago puts it into the client’s post office box.

Perkins has appealed to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich; and Rep. Don Young. Perkins received a phone call from an aide to Murkowski, Jason Huffnagel, and a written reply from Begich, whose staff had previously contacted the Postal Service regarding issues with the Cordova post office. As a result of Begich's inquiry, two area managers travelled to Cordova to investigate the backlog and handling of mail and a conducted a follow-up visit to evaluate operations.

In a December letter to Perkins, Young explained the modern dilemma faced by the 238-year-old service.

"Many people are not aware that the U.S. Postal Service has been totally self-supporting for more than a quarter century, with all of its income coming from the sale of products and services, and not operational subsidies from taxpayers," wrote Young. "However, the Postal Service experienced a 20 percent drop in mail volume from 2006 to 2010 as less mail is being sent due to the worst recession in 80 years as well as the fact that more mail and business is being conducted electronically. This combination of events has put the future of the Postal Service in jeopardy. In the first quarter of this fiscal year the U.S. Postal Service lost $3.3 billion. The financial difficulties are also due in part to a bill that was passed in 2006, just before mail volume started to drop, that requires an annual payment of $5.5 billion to prepay 100 percent of retiree health care liability for the next 75 years."

Perkins also received a letter from Beverly Christie, a consumer affairs specialist who responded on behalf of the Postmaster General. She explaining the need to reduce labor costs and touting the benefits of automation in large processing centers.

"The use of modern technology allows us to more efficiently and accurately sort the mail and reduce the costs of manual labor," wrote Christie. The letter goes on to describe the benefits of centralized automation for postal carriers, overlooking the fact that the community of Cordova does not have postal carriers. All transactions -- from postage to delivery -- are conducted in the post office.

Advocate of old-fashioned way

Perkins believes the old-fashioned way of sorting local mail by hand, locally, remains the most efficient and cost-effective route for Cordova.

"I doubt it is more efficient or more cost effective to fly local letters to the big city distribution center, and then fly them back. Already, even before extreme winter weather interferes, we are trying to adapt to delays for local letters," said Perkins. Perkins has estimated that delays have run as much as 10 days.

"I've watched multiple employees move on and not get replaced. Now two more clerks are taking retirement and there are no plans for new ones. This is a man-made disaster," said Perkins. "Our little town needs help."

This story first appeared in The Cordova Times.