Residents gather to protest post office closings

Pensions tied to possible closings

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By LA RISA LYNCH

Garfield park-A proposal by the United States Postal Service (USPS) to close 11 city post offices including five on the greater West Side drew the ire of nearly 300 residents and postal employees who packed a basement of a West Garfield Park church Tuesday night.

Many residents questioned the Postal Service's decision to close post offices in low-income black communities, leaving residents with few options to buy stamps or money orders.

"Every time they need to cut something, they come right here on the West Side," said Rickie Brown Sr., of the West Side Historical Society.

The West Side, he added, has seen the closing of its public aid office, a utility payment center, the removal of blue postal mailboxes and now jobs.

"The post office has historically been a staple of Black jobs in our community, and now you are talking about taking that," Brown said.

He spoke during a town hall meeting on the post office closings at New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Missionary Church, 4301 W. Washington. Congressman Danny K. Davis hosted the meeting, which lasted three hours.

But USPS officials, including Chicago District Manager and Postmaster Karen Schenck stressed that a federal mandate requiring the post office to pre-fund future retirees' health benefits until 2017 has put the agency in a financial noose. The Postal Service must pay out of its operating budget between $5.3 to $5.8 billion annually to pre-fund retirees' pension funds.

That financial noose is forcing the post office to shutter branches across the country - 3,000 facilities in all - to close a $20 million deficit. Schenck said the post office is conducting a feasibility study to determine which facilities to close.

No decision has been made, but USPS will base its decision on customer traffic, retail sales and proximity to other postal facilities. In the Chicago district, USPS wants to close 14 post offices - 11 in the city and three in the suburbs.

Schenck contends some of the postal facilities will close, but not all. Before the final decision is made, Schenck said the Postal Service will have another community meeting.

"Bottom line, we are in a financial crisis situation," Schenck said. Compounding that crisis is a 25 percent drop in mail volume, she added.

Mack I. Julion, Branch 11 president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, attributes the Postal Service's financial woes directly to the federal mandate, which he said requires USPS to pay future retiree's health benefits who are not even born yet. That expense, he explained, accounts for "100 percent of the deficits that the Postal Service has right now."

"This mandate is what is killing the Postal Service right now,"  he said, noting that there is a measure, House Bill 1351, in Congress to eliminate the pre-fund mandate. Postal Service is the only agency publicly or privately mandated to pre-fund future retirees' pension benefits.

"If not for this mandate, the Postal Service would have realized a $1 billion profit - that is with all these post offices in the inner city, in rural communities and with six day service," Julion said.

But he added the bill is on lockdown in a Republican controlled House committee.

"Our message is this, there is no need to close post offices," Julion said. "There is no need to cut services. All we need is for Congress to give us back our money."

Postal worker Rip Simpkins agreed. Simpkins works at the Rev. Milton Brunson Station, 324 S. Laramie, one of three Austin post offices facing possible closure.

Simpkins said the money used to pre-fund pension is surplus money that is just sitting there. He said that money could be used to erase the deficit. He noted, if his facility is closed, residents may have to travel farther for service or experience delays in getting their mail.

Donald Nichols, USPS's executive manger of post office operation, said House Bill 1351 is not a panacea for the Postal Service's financial woes. He said even by the year 2015, the post office could still be operating at a loss because of how the system is structured.

"We have more post offices than McDonald's, Walmarts and Starbucks all put together," Nichols said. "Even if we are no longer pre-funding retiree health benefits, we are still going to have to change the look and scope of our organization."

Part of that change may include downsizing the post office. The Postal Service wants to use the "village post office" system more. This would allow retail stores like Walmart and corner drug stores to sell stamps and priority packages. The idea did not sit well with residents and postal workers alike.

"If you are going to continue to do this, that's taking away jobs," said letter carrier Yolanda Nash.

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