August 2011

Running government like a business

Area residents heaved a sigh of relief in June when the Postal Service announced that the Lewis and Pleasant View post offices – which were being considered for closure – had been removed from the chopping block.

But now we hear that the post offices in Yellow Jacket (between Lewis and Pleasant View), Egnar (near the Utah state line), Mesa Verde, Ophir, and Rico might be shut down. They were included on a list of 3,700 post offices nationwide that will be studied for closure. The list was released July 26.

“As more customers choose to conduct their postal business online, on their smart phones and at their favorite shopping destinations, the need for the U.S. Postal Service to maintain its nearly 32,000 retail offices — the largest retail network in the country — diminishes,” the Postal Service said in a press release.

Affected communities are understandably upset, worrying that the closings will mean a loss of identity for their area and a loss of business for stores located near rural post offices. But, sadly, the closures are part of a tide that isn’t likely to be turned.

For years people have called for government to be “run like a business.” Well, this is what that philosophy entails. Businesses have to make tough, unsentimental decisions. If a store is continually losing money, it’s shuttered. City Market, Radio Shack, and Kmart don’t leave unsuccessful branches open. It doesn’t matter how long a business outlet has been in place or how much the community likes it or how many people might lose their jobs – if something isn’t making a profit, it’s gone.

And it’s no secret that the Postal Service, which is a self-supporting enterprise fund, has been bleeding money. It reportedly saw an $8.5 billion net loss in fiscal year 2010, compared to $3.8 billion the year before.

According to CNN, the post offices being studied average less than $50 in sales and less than two hours of work for employees daily. The closures could mean up to $200 million in savings – a drop in the bucket compared to the entire deficit, but drops do eventually add up.

The Postal Service has proposed “village post offices” to fill the void that will be created. These would be outlets in grocery and convenience stores that could provide basic services such as sales of stamps and handling of flat-rate packages. Certified and registered mail, rush deliveries and shipping of odd-sized boxes would not be available, however, and these village post offices would not be staffed by Postal Service employees. It’s probably the best alternative that these tiny towns can hope for, though.

If there are two lessons to be learned from this situation, it’s these:

Under the business model of government, nothing is sacred. As people increasingly balk at taxes and demand that government be downsized or even privatized, services will inevitably decrease. And rural areas will be among the places where the loss of services will be most keenly felt. (The other school of thought is, of course, that government is not and shouldn’t be a business, but an entity that provides critical services that aren’t necessarily profit-makers. But that is a topic for another day.)

Last, in these times of rapidly changing technology, it’s critical to support the things you value – whether Post Offices, brick-and-mortar retail stores, books, local businesses, or – yes! – print newspapers. Otherwise, they’ll be gone. If everyone is sending e-cards and e-mails, streaming videos from Netflix and reading aggregated and homogenized news on the Web, then the physical forms of those media will diminish and eventually disappear. That may be inevitable anyway, but perhaps it can be postponed long enough for us to ensure that folks such as the poor and the elderly aren’t deeply harmed in the process.