Postmaster: we need a good 20-cent letter

Postmaster General William F. Bolger says that if the Postal Rate Commission doesn't raise first-class postage rates to 20 cents Feb. 19, Congress ought to deregulate the Postal Service.

Mr. Bolger is the only career postmaker general in history and the 64th to hold office since Benjamin Franklin, who was the first. Franklin may have been worried by Indians and bad roads, but he also did not have to deal with nine-digit ZIP codes, 20-cent postage rates, and unions that threaten a nationwide strike.

Despite the occasional surly attendant behind the local post office's grated window, Bolger says, the US Postal Service is one of the best in the world. It employs 663,000 people, runs 30,000 post offices, supplies more than $17 billion worth of postage and other services annually, and last year carried 106 billion pieces of mail.

Concerning the proposed nine-digit ZIP code, Mr. Bolger had a reassurance for ordinary letter writers: They won't have to bother with it. It's meant mainly for better automation of the big mail users.

Bolger, from Waterbury, Conn., is a veteran of 38 years of government service , the last three as postmaker general. He gave his uninhibited views in a National Press Club speech Feb. 11, followed by interviews.

The average citizen has a love-hate relationship with the US Postal Service. Everyone has a story about the letter to Los Angeles from Glendale that took five days to arrive. The postmaster general calmly replies with statistics: The department increased its service by 6.5 billion pieces last year (a record), cut its deficit, expanded service by automation, and used almost a quarter-million vehicles to help keep vital mail like social security checks arriving on time.

Ten years ago, the post office, once the most political office in government, was depoliticized and made independent, run by a board of governors with rates set by a separate rate commission. Rates have not been raised for three years despite inflation. The 15-cent first-class rate, the postmaster general claims, is "lower than the letter rate of any other nation." If the Postal Rate Commission doesn't approve rate hikes next week, the Postal Service should be "deregulated," Bolger says, giving it the right to fix its own rates.

This provides something of a challenge to President Reagan, who derides "bureaucrats," charges fraud and inefficiency in government, and proposes to slash expenditures while reducing inflation. Career-man Bolger surprised interviewers by saying that he wouldn't oppose proposed cuts in federal aid so long as the facts were understood, such as the likely loss of Saturday deliveries.

"Ten years ago when the Postal Service became an independent agency," he says , "25 percent of its funds came from the taxpayers'" pockets. Now that amount is 4 percent -- and declining."

Will the service pay its own way in the near future? Bolger doesn't say yes or no. But he claims productivity "is 34 percent higher" than 10 years ago, that the service got through the Christmas hump "without a missed step," and that employees are well paid.

The postmaster general is severe about the threat of a nationwide strike by two unions, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Postal Workers Union. The nation will not stand for such an action, he thinks. Strikes against the Postal Service, a government agency, are considered illegal.

Automation, the ZIP code, a possible 20-cent postage stamp -- those things would have bothered even Postmaster General Ben Franklin.

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