Amid Staggering Losses, Tester Pushes Legislation to Improve Rural Mail Services

The USPS handled 420 million fewer pieces of mail from Jan. 1 to March 31 compared to the previous year

By Justin Franz
The U.S. Postal Service decided to close the Kalispell Mail Processing Center last week. By 2013, mail from northwest Montana will be sorted in Missoula and 20 people in Kalispell will lose their jobs. - Justin Franz/Flathead Beacon

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has introduced legislation in hopes of preserving and improving mail service in rural America.

The bill, called the Rural Postal Act, comes just two months after the U.S. Postal Service reported a net loss of $1.5 billion during the first three months of 2015. The service also handled 420 million fewer piece of mail during that time period than the previous year. The independent agency, which receives no tax dollars but is subjected to congressional control, has been struggling to stay afloat for years and has made service cuts in rural areas, including Montana.

The Postal Service says the cuts are necessary, but Tester says they are punishing rural communities.

“Each day folks in all corners of the country count on the timely delivery of letters, bills, medicine and election ballots,” Tester said in a press release. “The Postal Service is critical for our rural way of life, and this bill takes important steps to restore delivery standards by preventing future processing plant closures and preserving six-day mail service.”

The bill, which is sponsored by Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Gary Peters (D-Michigan), would put a two-year moratorium on closing processing plant and protect rural post offices. In 2011, Montana had nine mail processing plants, but today there are only three. The plant closures, which included the one in Kalispell, were completed during a rash of changes within the Postal Service. During the summer of 2011, USPS proposed shuttering 3,700 retail offices across the country, including 85 in Montana. Included on the list were offices in Dixon, Elmo, Stryker and Olney. While some offices closed, others survived, albeit with reduced hours. Tester’s bill would allow communities to formally petition the Postal Service to prevent closures or reductions in hours.

Spokesperson Peter Nowacki said the USPS appreciated Tester’s efforts but noted that the issues the service face go beyond rural areas.

“We appreciate Sen. Tester’s continued focus on postal legislation,” he said. “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. Tester and other members of Congress to enact comprehensive postal reform.”