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Closing Post Offices A Hard Sell

The Postal Service's desire to shut down little-used post offices will probably require a panel akin to a military base-closing commission, a congressional agency said Monday.

No lawmaker will like the idea of voters complaining about the closure of their long-standing post office, so putting together a commission is probably the only way to get it done, Comptroller General David Walker told a Senate subcommittee.

"In the end, nobody likes to close anything, and change is difficult," said Walker, who leads the General Accounting Office, Congress's watchdog arm.

Postmaster General John Potter has crafted a transformation plan that proposes major changes in the operation of the financially strapped agency. As part of that, he ended the Postal Service's self-imposed moratorium on closing small post offices. While that does not mean there will be wholesale closings, the agency wants to shut down non-performing locations where service can be provided by other stations to help save money.

There are about 38,000 post offices, Potter said. However, people can now get postage stamps from vending machines, grocery stores and rural letter carriers, he said.

"We ought to maximize points of service and minimize bricks and mortar," Walker told a Senate federal services subcommittee.

Mail service is expected to be down by 6 billion letters by the end of September, the largest loss in more than 70 years, because of the Sept. 11 attacks, the downturn in the economy and the anthrax attacks, he said.

That will lead to a net loss of about $1.5 billion, making 2002 the Postal Service's third straight year of net losses, he said.

The post office has not received any taxpayer subsidy for operations for years, although Congress recently voted $500 million to assist in coping with the anthrax contamination and to seek ways to prevent it from happening again.

Potter, however, did not sound enthusiastic about Walker's plan for a commission, saying the Postal Service would rather have legislation allowing it to close less-used post offices on its own. Currently, the Postal Service cannot close post offices without Congress' permission, he said.

The Postal Service's business model of assuming that rising mail volume will cover rising costs and mitigate rate increases will not help the agency survive an uncertain future, he said.

"Its business model does not work in the 21st century and will not work in the 21st century," he said.

That includes deciding what services the Postal Service wants to guarantee for all Americans in the future, such as six-day-a-week letter delivery and package delivery, Walker said.

"Tough choices will have to be made," he said.

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