Montana Viewpoint: Post office the soul of small towns

The Post Office in my mother’s hometown of Barlow, N. D., closed in 1965.

I know this because when I visited tiny Barlow in 1972 to see if there was anyone still there who knew my mother (she left Barlow for good in 1917 when she was 14) I ran into several who had gone to school with her.

JIM

Jim Elliott

In the course of a very pleasant and nostalgic evening over very weak coffee, one of my hosts (we were in the parlor of the house my mother was born and raised in) showed me a letter he had saved—the last letter to have been postmarked from Barlow. Why was this so important to him? Because on that day Barlow basically ceased to be.

A post office, along with the school, represents the soul of a community. When they go, the town dies. So it is little wonder that post office closures are fought tooth and nail by citizens. It is not about the inconvenience, it is about identity.

But we are constantly being told that the Postal Service is in trouble and will have to close post offices and cut services to contain costs. It’s a phony argument.

The origin of U.S. Post Office predates the nation. It was started in 1775 as an alternative to the Royal Mail, largely because, I suppose, when you are engaged in rebellion you don’t want to send documents through the enemy’s mail service.

Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general. Up until 1970, the Postal Service was a government agency and the postmaster general was a member of the president’s cabinet. In 1970 the decision was made to make the Postal Service into a quasi-governmental agency.

This would accomplish two things: it would end the government’s subsidy to the agency (postal revenue covered only about 85 percent of operating costs) and the Postal Service would be run more like private enterprise—a private enterprise with 535 micro-managers, collectively known as the U.S. Congress. All that said, the new U.S. Postal Service functioned pretty well, actually running surpluses for most years.

And those surpluses seemed to be its undoing, because even though it was supposed to be run like a business, it was not supposed to engage in the very businesslike practice of increasing earnings to pay down debt. About 2002 that changed. Congress allowed the USPS to use its surplus to pay off debt and keep postal rates down, but any new annual surpluses had to be paid into an escrow account that the USPS couldn’t touch.

The Postal Service was also required to cover the retirement costs for the years that its employees served in the military. Previously this had been the function of the U.S. Treasury. This increased obligation essentially eliminated any surpluses at the USPS.

In 2006, Congress passed another law that gave the Postal Service access to the escrow fund and removed the military pension obligation. But just to make sure the agency wasn’t run like a business, Congress found a new expense for it in the form of a requirement to pre-pay the future costs of their employee’s health care retirement fund.

That in itself, although not common, is not a bad idea, but the amount that Congress decided on—over $5 billion a year for 10 years—was a back-breaker, never mind the fact that the amount does not have any economic basis. If it did, it would be a far lower amount spread out over a much longer period of time. That’s what has created the financial problem.

Essentially this is an economic difficulty brought on the Postal Service by unsound business practices foisted on it by Congress, and Congress needs to fix it. Americans like the Postal Service and what it offers, and that is doubly true in rural areas.

Those of us who live on rural postal routes are coddled by the personal services rendered by our mail carriers and greeted like long-lost relatives (with money) at the small-town post offices. It is the best interaction with government that most citizens ever have and for that reason alone should be preserved.

(Much of the information in this column was taken from “How Phantom Accounting Is Destroying the Post Office,” a 2012 article in the Huffington Post by David Morris. It was inspired by the courteous and hard-working folks at my local P.O.)

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.

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