The headline reads USPS in financial disaster. It might very well be a headline recycled from last year. The red ink at the U.S. Postal Service could float an aircraft carrier.
Our post office, which traces its roots to 1775, is one of the few government agencies authorized by our Constitution. Back then, it was the mail or smoke signals.
To this day, the USPS enjoys a monopoly on delivering first-class mail and is legally obligated to serve all Americans. In 2012, the agency lost nearly $16 billion on revenues of $65 billion. The same half solutions are on the menu again. The USPS is asking for a cent increase in the price of postage, and lawmakers are again considering the end of Saturday delivery.
While USPS unions argue that the financial problems would be alleviated if the USPS were not required to contribute $5.5 billion a year for retiree benefits, they should be reminded that millions of their fellow Americans have seen their retiree benefits vanish and that it is their members who will ultimately benefit from those payments.
Even after recent cutbacks, the USPS has too many employees providing a service for which there are now many alternatives that the public and the government itself are embracing more eagerly each year.
With few exceptions, the U.S. government is no longer mailing out Social Security checks or selling paper savings bonds. The IRS has been steering taxpayers into filing their annual tax returns electronically and, beginning next year, will no longer accept some returns by mail. That business is never going back to the USPS.
I propose solutions at both ends of the process. At the front end, the USPS should get out of the retail side of selling its services. Having a bricks-and-mortar post office where you get in line to buy a 46-cent stamp from a USPS employee smacks of the way things were done mid-last century.
The USPS should franchise those operations to existing retail stores that would eagerly pay for the right to sell postal services in order to increase foot traffic in their stores. Prime candidates would include drug stores, package delivery stores, office supply stores and stationery stores.
The public would be a big winner. The Town of Cary has a population of 140,000 but only two post offices. If the USPS were to franchise its retail operations, not only could postal services be sold in many more outlets, but hours of operation would expand to the stores own hours. The USPS would also win big as franchise fees would be pure profit.
The other end of the process is an even better candidate for greater efficiency. Lets keep Saturday delivery but have the USPS deliver mail to each address twice or three times a week.
Routes would have to be reorganized, but a mail carrier would be much more efficient, allowing the USPS to cut back significantly in the number of employees going door to door.
If a resident needed daily delivery, the obvious solution would be to rent a box at the post office and collect mail as often as needed. That would bring more profit.
To its credit, the USPS is already implementing some cost-saving measures. It is pushing for community mailboxes in new subdivisions, where residents can get their mail from a cluster of boxes and enjoy greater security as only the addressee with the key can access a mailbox.
In the past year, I have caught up with the 21 utility providers and financial companies I deal with. In all cases, payment is made by automatic debit from my bank account or credit card. Like most Americans, I seldom mail a check any more and cant remember the last time I got a letter from family or friend.
Lets face it. For the average 20- or 30-something American, mail service is a quaint reminder of how things were done in the past. It would never cross the minds of most of them to buy and send a Christmas card or birthday card by mail.
There is no going back, and the sooner the post office and lawmakers accept the inevitable, the quicker we can put a stop to the red ink and start looking to the USPS to pay dividends to the U.S. Treasury from its trimmed operations.
Wouldnt that be a nice for a change?
Contributing columnist Marc Landry can be reached at email@example.com.