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Fewer days of mail could deliver billions in savings

Given these bleak economic times, not to mention a future about as certain as seeing Ask Again Later at the bottom of your Magic 8-Ball, these days we're all about cutting back.

Governments are making grim choices, like paring hours at local libraries or staff at public parks, pinches that can end up hurting people who need those services most.

(Hey, how about requiring anyone who benefited from a government bailout and got a fat bonus to contribute that cash to run our libraries through these tough times? Just a thought.)

So here's an idea on the table worth considering: Drop a day of mail delivery.

Un-American, some of us will say.

But maybe necessary.

Maybe even relatively painless.

Last year, the United States Postal Service suffered a $2.8 billion deficit and the worst drop in mail volume in its history. Now the postmaster general is "reluctantly" asking Congress to lift a mandate that requires mail delivery six days a week.

(For the record, postal officials are also talking about other potential money-saving options, including one involving the financing of retiree health benefits, but this one's getting the most attention, for obvious reasons.)

If we skipped the mail one day a week — on one of their slowest days, Saturday or Tuesday — that could save $2 billion to $4 billion a year.

Advertisers who like Saturday delivery because we consumers presumably have more time to leaf through those slick mailers and fat catalogues probably won't like this. Congress could block it.

And one less day equals layoffs, right?

Apparently, not necessarily. Gerry McKiernan, a Postal Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., says that letter carriers already work five-day weeks. Temporary employees do the rest. How things would shake out would depend on the schedule change postal officials ultimately choose — such as cutting delivery in slow summer months — if they are given the power to decide at all.

Here's an important point, though: To a lot of us, mail is about history and permanence.

It's why some of us squawked so loudly when postal officials wanted to change our postmark to read Tampa even in St. Petersburg.

Anyone who spent a summer checking the mailbox daily for letters from a sixth-grade best friend whose family moved to Connecticut for some incomprehensible reason — anyone who has waited for military mail, or news of faraway family members before the days of free cell phone minutes — gets this.

Daily mail is a reliable detail of American life, like free books from the library or parks that are open to everyone.

But the world has changed around us, and we've changed with it. Think how less frequently we pick up pen and paper, write out greeting cards, lick stamps and stick them on envelopes. E-mail, e-vites, Facebook, PayPal and their ilk all point to why there were 9 billion fewer pieces of mail last year than the year before, and how our post office ended up in this pickle.

One fewer day's delivery is like not watering your lawn during a drought. It's making do with less until there's more again, a small sacrifice for a greater good.

Which, when you think about it, sounds pretty American after all.

Fewer days of mail could deliver billions in savings 02/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 4:08pm]
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