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U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont, has signed onto a bill to preserve six-day-a-week mail service and protect rural post offices.

Walsh’s support for keeping the U.S. Postal Service fully operating comes as talk of cutting six-day-a-week mail service is heating up. Lawmakers are scrambling to find funding for federal highway projects and House Republicans say post office cuts could help pay the bill.

The U.S. Postal Service has struggled under federal retirement regulations for several years, which has made it a target for service cuts. But Senate lawmakers from rural states say it’s the regulations that must go.

“We must take responsible steps now to ensure these services continue without interruption, that our rural mail offices remain open, and that we protect the jobs of hard-working Montanans,” Walsh said in a prepared statement.

Billings postal carrier Randy Rabas said if the regulations were lifted, the postal service would turn a profit. At issue is how much money the U.S. Postal Service must commit to future employee retirement and health benefits. Presently, the USPS must set aside enough money to cover 75 years of benefits. That requirement costs USPS about $5.4 billion a year, Rabas said. The regulation created in the lame-duck session of the 2006 Congress is too much for USPS.

“It’s funding that reaches out 75 years, but the payments have to be made over a 10-year period,” Rabas said. “Seventy-five years. We’re talking about benefits for people who haven’t even been born yet.”

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Rabas, who is also president of the Montana State Association of Letter Carriers, said at the time the regulation was created, the USPS, which does not receive tax funding, was making money. But the recession caused a slowdown in mail, which made the mandated retirement account payments difficult. As the USPS struggled with the payments, it began cutting services.

Roughly a half-dozen mail processing centers across Montana were closed to save money. Those closures slowed delivery, Rabas said. The USPS also targeted Montana post offices for reduced hours. The fight to keep postal service intact, particularly in rural Montana is now three years old.

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Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.