Closing mail facility in Huntsville will hurt service, officials say
Published: Sunday, April 08, 2012, 7:14 AM Updated: Sunday, April 08, 2012, 8:39 AM
By Lee Roop, The Huntsville Times
This central mail processing facility on Wall Triana Highway near the Huntsville International Airport will be closed in May unless something changes in the Postal Service’s plans. (Huntsville Times/Michael Mercier)
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – The check’s in the mail, but who knows for how long.
That’s the warning from postal workers and local officials, who say a government plan to close a regional mail-processing facility in Huntsville next month is already causing mail delays, collection changes and other issues across North Alabama that the public doesn’t realize.
“The level of services we’ve become accustomed to will be no more,” Michelle Jordan, director of the City of Huntsville Economic Development Department, said last week.
The targeted mail facility, which is located on Wall-Triana Highway just south of Interstate 565, is already effectively half-closed, the U.S Postal Service confirms. All outgoing mail from ZIP codes beginning with 356, 357 and 358 began going to Birmingham in January for processing before coming back for delivery.
That’s mail not just from Huntsville, but also from Decatur, Florence, Madison, Athens, Courtland, Cherokee, Ryland, Scottsboro and Stevenson – 70 post offices in all or nearly 1 million pieces of mail a day, according to Postal Service figures.
What are the consequences of that 200-mile round trip? And what will the planned expansion of the Birmingham center’s role to include processing all incoming, as well as outgoing mail, mean to North Alabama, the fastest-growing area of the state?
Imagine it taking a week – or longer – for a check written to, for example, Huntsville Utilities to make it from a Huntsville mailbox to the utility’s office downtown. Until January, that had been an overnight trip.
How will customers know when to put their checks in the mail? Trial and error will be the only way, postal workers say.
Journeys of five to eight days are already happening for local mail sent to local addresses, according to postal workers who spoke to The Huntsville Times editorial board last week. One worker is testing the system by mailing letters to himself on a regular basis.
Also, hundreds of letters mailed from this area are returning from Birmingham each day uncanceled, the Huntsville postal workers say, which not only suggests the strain on the Birmingham facility, but also results in potential lost revenue because uncanceled stamps can be reused.
Meanwhile, practically new canceling machines sit idle at the Wall-Triana facility, postal worker Linda Jones said.
May 15 is the last day of a moratorium imposed by the Postal Service on the closing of the Wall-Triana facility and more than 200 other facility closures planned across the country. After that, all mail for North Alabama – not just locally mailed letters – will be hauled by truck daily from Birmingham to central post offices for dispersal to postal carriers.
Collection times have already changed at the blue, curbside mail boxes in Huntsville. Mail is now collected from the boxes no later than 3 p.m., not 5 p.m.
The city has also essentially lost its 200-year-old postmark. Citizens can still get mail postmarked “Huntsville” if they take it inside a post office during business hours and ask. But drop a letter in any mailbox and it will be postmarked “Birmingham.”
The postal workers are trying to gather public and political support to stop the closure. “We have this facility. It’s paid for. Let’s use it,” said postal worker and union leader Frank Chargualaf.
The workers know it’s an uphill fight given the Postal Service’s miserable financial condition and the fact that the decision is a done deal unless something stops it. But for the workers and local leaders, moving postal jobs and closing a government-owned facility in fast-growing north Alabama in favor of a leased Birmingham facility 100 miles away makes no sense.
The workers say it won’t save money. In fact, they say it has already increased costs due to more large trucks needed to shuttle mail between the two cities.
But the financially reeling Postal Service says the plan is necessary. Closure of the Wall-Triana facility will save more than $4 million in the first year, including $2 million in salaries, and ultimately more than $7 million a year, the Postal Service says. See one of the Postal Service’s estimates below.
Those savings are based on expected attrition, reduction of maintenance costs and other factors. The approximately 200 current workers at the facility have the option to move to Birmingham and other facilities.
Postal Service regional spokeswoman Debra Fetterly confirmed the impending closing last week. “Yes, that is the plan,” Fetterly said, unless “the administration and Congress come up with an alternate plan.”
Chances of that happening appear slim. Timothy Costello, Alabama district postal service manager, defended the plan in a column written for Alabama newspapers Feb. 29. Read his op-ed below.
Costello called the moves, which involve downsizing postal facilities nationwide from 461 to under 200 by the end of 2013, part of the “responsible actions” the Postal Service is taking to return to profitability. The service lost $3.3 billion in the first quarter of this year, Costello said, and will lose more for the remainder of the year.
“No one is to blame,” Costello wrote. “Times have just changed. So must the Postal Service. The fact is the American public and businesses are relying more on electronic communications. Bills are paid online. Friends and family interact through Facebook and Twitter.”
Nonetheless, the post office remains a huge business delivering hundreds of millions of pieces of mail and advertising a year, Costello said. It will survive if these painful steps are taken, he said.
Congress, which could stop or delay the plan by providing more money, seems unlikely to act in time.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, won’t get in the middle of the issue, his office said last week.
“Sen. Shelby is aware of the concerns surrounding the U.S. Postal Service’s decision to consolidate mail processing in Alabama,” deputy press secretary Julie Eckert said Tuesday. “While he is hopeful that these Huntsville jobs can be preserved, the senator also understands that the service is in dire financial straits and therefore must make difficult economic decisions with regard to its staffing.”
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, who represents North Alabama in Congress, wrote the U.S. postmaster in February requesting a justification for the closing. The post office replied, citing its flood of red ink and the expected savings. Brooks has not yet indicated plans to take any further action.
Several local political officials, including Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Madison County Commissioner Bob Harrison and City Councilman Richard Showers, have tried to fight. They spoke at a forum on the plan in Decatur and have filed letters of protest.
The local leaders say they know what’s at stake, but aren’t sure how to stop it.
“The mayor wants the facility in full operation and the Huntsville postmark,” Jordan said last week. “This would be a step back.”
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