News: Special Delivery

National postal freeze likely won't affect Cincinnati project

Cincinnati appears to have escaped the national postal budget cuts announced last week. The U.S. Postal Service has halted about 800 construction projects nationwide to make up for an expected deficit of $2 billion to $3 billion this year. The freeze on new construction includes 10 projects in Ohio, 11 in Kentucky and 16 in Indiana.

But the spending freeze shouldn't affect relocation of Cincinnati's main postal processing center from Dalton Avenue in Queensgate to Seymour Avenue in Bond Hill, according to Bonni Manies, spokesman for the Postal Service. The Dalton Avenue facility employs more than 2,300 people, most of whom live in the city of Cincinnati.

The new, 70-acre, 800,000-square-foot location, tentatively scheduled to open in late 2006, will go on land now occupied by the Pauline Warfield Lewis Center, formerly Longview State Mental Hospital.

Construction of the new postal facility had been expected to begin in April 2004, after several environmental, noise, traffic and other studies are finished and the Lewis Center moves. Then came last week's announcement of a spending freeze on new post offices.

The old distribution center, which processes mail for five counties, was built in 1932. The facility encompasses a three-story and a four-story building.

The Postal Service began scouting for a new location in December 1997 because the old facility wasn't designed to handle all the modern machines needed to sort mail, Manies said. Valuable time is wasted moving mail between the facility's floors, she says.

When the Postal Service started looking for new quarters, Cincinnati City Council immediately expressed an interest in keeping the facility and its jobs within the city limits, according to Manies. Former Mayor Roxanne Qualls and U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati) first took up the cause, which has become the pet project of Councilwoman Alicia Reece, elected in 1999.

Manies said the postal service had hoped to open the new center by this year, but the project has been complicated by the fact that local, state and federal governments are involved.

Two other projects in the Cincinnati Postal District, in Van Buren, Ohio and DeMossville, Ky., were scheduled for the current fiscal year, but are not yet under contract. Both of those construction projects are now on hold for the foreseeable future.

Earlier this year first-class postage rates increased by one cent, to 34 cents per letter. But that price hike is not enough to forestall a deficit, according to the Postal Service Board of Governors. Postal officials cite several reasons for the projected deficit, including:

· employee pay that's increasing faster than inflation;

· the rising costs of fuel; and

· greater competition, including e-mail.

Employee pay accounts for 76 percent of the Postal Service's expenses.

In addition to the spending freeze, the Postal Service is contemplating another increase in postage rates this year, possibly as much as 10 to 15 percent.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Postal Service's announcement is the possibility of ending daily, universal mail delivery.

Universal service is the regular delivery of mail to every address across the country — from the biggest city to the smallest village — at uniform rates. Universal service, which allows a person to mail a letter from Miami to Anchorage for the same price as a letter sent across the street, is a national priority, called for by Congress since the founding of the nation.

"Universal mail service is at risk without statutory reform of the laws governing the Postal Service," warns the Postal Service Board of Governors.

The warning could not come at a worse time for people who believe government should provide certain basic services at equitable levels, without regard to income. The post office has long been a favorite target of conservatives, who argue private companies could provide better service and make a profit.

Competition is the darling of Republicans, who now control the White House and both houses of Congress. If universal daily mail delivery ceases to be a national priority, you can bet it will cost more to send a letter of complaint to Washington, D.C. ©

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