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Postal service studying changes to local delivery

Monday, July 16, 2007

By David Doerr

Tribune-Herald staff writer

After more than a year and a half of waiting, local postal workers are getting restless for the findings of a study that could result in the closure of the Waco mail sorting plant, possibly affecting hundreds of jobs and service quality.

In January 2006, U.S. Postal Service officials announced they had begun a study to maximize mail delivery efficiency and cost savings by consolidating the Waco plant’s operations with two others. Since then, the plant’s 240 processing clerks have worked under a cloud of uncertainty, worrying about whether they will continue to have jobs there in the near future.

The proposal also has community and business leaders wondering how service quality would be affected by a consolidation that might send across-town mail to Fort Worth or Austin — a 180-to-200-mile round trip — before being delivered locally.

So far, no one has had their questions answered, said Ruby Harrison, vice president of the local arm of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents processing clerks. Although postal service officials say they have not decided whether to consolidate, the lack of information has put many employees on edge, Harrison said.

“When they say ‘consolidation,’ that means your job is going, and you are going to be (transferred), and you don’t know where,” she said. “You are thinking about your family life being disrupted.”

But besides fearing losing their jobs, postal employees say, the community should be aware of the ongoing study because of the effect consolidation could have on the quality of mail delivery service.

“We want (the public) to know that the threat is still imminent for Waco being consolidated into Fort Worth and Austin,” said Curtis Reed, president of the local union. “If it is consolidated, it is going to have a direct effect on how early you can pick up your mail and how late your mail is delivered. It will also affect delivery of (tax documents), credit cards, prescription drugs and legal documents.”

The goal of a consolidation study is to streamline operations without reducing service quality, said Steve Seewoester, a Dallas-based postal service spokesman.

However, some postal service customers question how delivery times could be improved if local mail is processed out of town.

Jim Vaughan, president and CEO of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said his organization’s mail is not available for pickup until 10 a.m. and has to be ready to be mailed out by about 3:30 p.m. He said he longs for the days when the postal service collected mail as late as 11 p.m.

“It seems to me that service is not getting better,” he said. “When somebody starts to think that mail that would be sent across town would go to Fort Worth or Austin before it is delivered locally, it doesn’t ring right.”

Although the chamber would be concerned about the potential loss of local jobs, Vaughan said he thinks local business leaders could support consolidation if the postal service could show that delivery times would be improved.

MailMax Direct, a Waco-based company that pre-sorts and combines large amounts of mail to qualify customers for bulk rates, is one company that could be affected by a consolidation.

The company helps area businesses such as hospitals and banks keep their mailing operations competitive with companies in large cities, where bulk mail rates are more commonly available, MailMax president David Anderton said.

If consolidation occurred, MailMax would have to truck the mail to out-of-town processing centers instead of making the three-mile trip down State Highway 6 between the postal service’s Waco facility and his plant, Anderton said. That inevitably would add transportation costs and time to transport the mail, he said.

“Our belief is that the Waco community is supportive of the (processing center), and we don’t want to let that service go away,” he said. “We definitely want to keep processing here, not just from my standpoint. It wouldn’t hurt me as much as the end user.”

Since 2004, the postal service has conducted 52 similar studies across the country, according to agency statistics. Nine resulted in consolidations, 30 were canceled and 13 are ongoing.

Those numbers show the postal service only consolidates if the facts show that the change makes sense, Seewoester said.

“Like any organization, we are always reviewing our operations to improve productivity and increase efficiency,” he said. “We do that however we can. One of the ways is to have prudent management of our processing operations to keep our costs down.”

Seewoester said the study would not affect all the Waco plant’s employees. But he also said that the number would not be determined until the study is completed.

The Waco plant distributes mail in 124 Central Texas cities, stretching from Italy to the north, Jarrell to the south, Hamilton to the west and Kosse to the east.

The study is designed to address shifts in volumes of the first-, second- and third-class mail the facility processes. Currently, an average of 326,000 pieces of mail come through the Waco plant each day, Seewoester said.

First-class mail volume has been declining in recent years across the country, putting pressure on the postal service to find ways to cut costs, he said. Some of decline can be attributed to new means of electronic communication, such as e-mail and online billing, he said.

“There are so many different things you can do now,” Seewoester said. “Traditionally, 25 years ago, you got a bill and you paid it through the mail or you went there (to pay it).”

Harrison, from the union, said the postal service is supposed to collect input from the community as part of the study. However, Seewoester said that the community would not be informed of the study’s findings until it is completed.

“At the end of the study, when we look at the results, then that is the point that we seek public input about it,” he said. “That is what we are doing in all of our studies.”

Harrison criticized the postal service for not doing more to solicit public input before the study is completed.

“They want this to be a done deal before the public even becomes aware of what has happened,” she said.

Consolidation studies in Bryan and McAllen were halted earlier this year after postal officials found it impossible to improve mail deliver efficiency without negatively impacting service quality.

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, whose district includes Bryan, said input from local officials there played a key role in keeping processing operations local.

“I think the postal service has shown that it is willing to listen to facts and concerns from the local community,” he said. “I would urge community leaders and organizations to get involved.

“Mail delays mean that businesses get checks for their services and products in more slowly,” he said. “In the business world, time is money.”

ddoerr@wacotrib.com

757-5755

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