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No local post offices expected to close

Amid the many financial problems facing the country today one of the most shocking has to be the situation addressed by Post Master General Patrick Donahoe in his speech before Congress earlier this month. According to Donahoe a mandate made by Congress in 2006 turned over a nearly six billion dollar annual payment of retiree benefits, directly into the hands of the postal service. Prior to this change the organization was still showing profitability, but has since been forced to look at drastic changes to make up the difference.
Beginning in the 1980s, during a boom time of business, the Reagan administration began hiring extra postal employees to help with the increase in mail traffic and eventually the service grew to more than 800,000 employees nationwide. One of the benefits that postal workers enjoy is the ability to retire after 30 years of work. Under current law, those who do retire at 55 are still entitled to paid health benefits until they turn 65. This 10-year window is where the huge costs to the government became a 5.5 billion dollar payment for the postal service each year.
According to title VIII of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, signed into law by President Bush, the postal service is required to pre-fund postal retirement and health benefits. This immediately had a drastic affect on the department but was made even worse by a dwindling economy and rising gas prices. As the only carrier that reaches every address in the nation, consisting of more than 150 million residences, businesses, and P.O. Boxes, a single penny increase in the price of gas can mean more than $1,000,000 in cost.
This prompted Post Master General Donahoe to come before congress with the revelation that if something is not done to aid the postal service, it could face default by the end of the month. Already major cuts have been made to help alleviate the problems, with a recent layoff of 110,000 employees and another 110,000 expected. Yet, even this is not enough to bring the organization out of the red.
So what does this mean for local offices such as the ones found in Johnson County?
One of the issues that Donahoe addressed was a request to allow the Postal Service the authority to set delivery frequency. This would give the service the authority to drop to a 5-day delivery schedule, most likely ending Saturday rural delivery. Although nothing has yet been put into effect, the current understanding is that local post offices would not operate rural routes on Saturday, but customers would still be able to conduct business at the post office, and customers with PO boxes would still receive their mail as well. In smaller community offices such as Laurel Bloomery this wouldn’t mean much of a change. But for larger, cities with many businesses there have been critics of the plan.
However, most postal officials agree that by cutting Saturday rural service alone roughly half of the current postal deficit could be provided for. This comes in part to the money saved from Saturday salaries but also from the tremendous money saved in fueling the nearly 300,000 vehicles that make up the national fleet.
Yet even more drastic changes have been discussed, including the closure of many small offices around the country. Fortunately no post offices in Johnson County are on the list for potential closure but there are several from this region, such as Flag Pond in Unicoi County, and Afton in Greene County. The service looks at how small the offices are and their distance to the next office, in determining their sustainability. In Johnson County most, as in the case of Butler and Shady Valley, are much too far away from another office to be currently considered, and although community offices like Laurel Bloomery are small they work with larger offices such as Mountain City and don’t have to worry as much about consolidation issues. In fact many local offices are actually showing increased profits, as in the case of Butler, which has seen a rise in its revenues by 50% over the last six years.
Becoming entangled in the doom and gloom of the situation it is easy to forget that the postal service would still be making money in the long run except for the huge benefits payments that the government has placed on it, a fact that Post Master Donahoe has brought to the attention of Congress and which now awaits their judgment. Yet while the debate rages on, local offices have to cope. Some have become very fearful of the situation but others such as Butler postmaster Ray Daniels seem to be more optimistic, “Because of the cheapness of the service the post office is still the best and safest way to do business.” Only time will tell exactly how the problems that the postal service is facing will be solved, but many are hopeful that this is just another challenge to overcome in the long line of challenges dating back to the establishment of the service nearly two and a half centuries ago.