Trims at US Postal Service 'no disaster' for most users

Thousands of nonprofit groups -- charities, churches, labor organizations -- will pay a lot more money to mail their fund- raising letters. Some country newspapers will have to raise subscription rates to cover postage. And all of us will be besieged by pleas to use the nine-digit ZIP code.

But for the most part, mail service will remain the same if Congress approves the Reagan budget proposals.

At least that's the promise from Postmaster General William F. Bolger. "I don't consider these budget cuts a disaster," he told a congressional panel soon after the Reagan budget arrived on Capitol Hill.

Mail will still be delivered six days a week, and small post offices will stay in business, he said. But some customers will pay more, and the giant Postal Service (which pays $1 billion in wages every month) will have to be more automated, which calls for the nine-digit ZIP.

The Reagan budget ax swings two ways into the Postal Service. And the aim for both is to make the mail service run more like a business.

First, the President would cut federal subsidies for third-class bulk mail from nonprofit groups from $800 million to $500 million. These organizations pay only 3.5 cents per letter today; next October they would pay 5.9 cents, up almost 70 percent.

For hundreds of groups that rely heavily on mail solicitation, the cost will mean raising less money. But the hope is that they will also be forced to "clean up" outdated mailing lists now that postage costs more.

Others who now are benefiting from the federal subsidy include rural newspapers that pay a specially low rate to mail inside their counties and blind persons, who have free mail service.

The second swing of the ax hits postal operations that lose money. These include the tiny post offices in isolated places such as the Havasu Indian village inside the Grand Canyon, where the only way in is by mule trail or helicopter, or the outpost on Lake Superior's Madeline Island, where winter mail arrives six days a week aboard wind sleds or snowmobiles.

Under the Reagan plan, the federal money that funds these expensive services would be cut by $250 million this year, $334 million next year, and dropped altogether by 1984.

The Postal Service should pay its own way, according to the President's economic plan, which states that "the cost of mail service should be borne by users, not taxpayers."

Postmaster General Bolger has gamely responded that he can live with the cuts without reducing services as long as the post office continues to modernize. He pointed to new electronic equipment that can read and sort mail. If customers use the nine-digit ZIP code, which Bolger stressed will be voluntary, mail handling will be far more automated, fewer workers will be needed, and more money saved.

Democrats in the House of Representatives are far less sanguine about the Reagan cuts than the postmaster general, however.

"The post office was never designed as revenue-raising," Rep. William D. Ford (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee told the Monitor. He worries that unless federal funds help support the mail service , the big mailers will take control, eventually forcing an end to six-day delivery and closing unprofitable post offices.

Mr. Ford's committee, over unanimous opposition from its Republicans, has voted to reject the Reagan budget cuts. But that vote is only a preliminary one and opposition to the postal cuts has so far been low-keyed.

As one Capitol Hill staffer put it, "If Reagan's program falls apart, we have a chance of saving the appropriation." Otherwise, stacked up against the pleas for more money for food stamps and welfare, the post office budget looks like an easy place to trim.

Meanwhile, Bolger would like a bring in more revenue from users -- by again raising the first-class mail rate, which goes up to 18-cents March 22. The postmaster general is seeking a 20-cent rate.

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