Post office near default? Losses mount to $5.1B

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Postal Service said Tuesday it has lost $5.1 billion in the past year, pushing it closer to imminent default on a multibillion-dollar payment and to future bankruptcy as the weak economy and increased Internet use drive down mail volume.

The financial losses for the year ended Sept. 30 came despite deep cuts of more than 130,000 jobs in recent years and the closing of some smaller local post offices.

Losses will only accelerate in the coming year, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe warned, citing faster-than-expected declines in first-class mail. He implored Congress to take swift, wide-ranging action to stabilize the ailing agency’s finances as it nears a legal deadline Friday to pay $5.5 billion into the U.S. Treasury for future retiree health benefits.

Congress is expected to grant a reprieve, but that will only delay the day of reckoning for an agency struggling for relevance in an electronic age. Based on current losses, the Postal Service says it will run out of money — or come dangerously close — next September, forcing it to halt service.

“We are at a point where we require urgent action,” Donahoe said.

In the event of a shutdown, private companies such as FedEx and UPS could handle a small portion of the material the post office moves, but they do not go everywhere. No business has shown interest in delivering letters everywhere in the country for a set rate of 44 cents for a first-class letter.

For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the post office had income of $65.7 billion, down $1.4 billion from the previous year. Expenses totaled $70.6 billion.

The loss of $5.1 billion was less than a previous estimate of $10 billion, but only because the $5.5 billion payment — originally due Sept. 30 — was deferred until Nov. 18 with the approval of Congress.

In 2010, losses totaled $8.5 billion.

Mail volume this past year totaled 168 billion pieces, compared with 171 billion in 2010, a decline of 1.7 percent. At the same time volume was declining, the post office was required to begin service to thousands of new addresses to accommodate population growth and new businesses.

The Postal Service, an independent agency of government that does not receive tax money for its operations, is not seeking federal funds.

Instead, postal officials want changes in the way they operate so they can save money. They have asked Congress for permission to reduce mail delivery to five days a week, which many lawmakers oppose, and to eliminate or reduce the annual payments of about $5.5 billion to prefund retiree health benefits. The agency also wants the return of at least $6.9 billion it says was overpaid into federal retirement funds.

The service also seeks more layoffs, which are barred by current contracts with its employee unions, and the authority to negotiate with unions on a possible alternate health care system that would cost less.

Postal Service losses have been mounting over the past few years as more private mail and bill payments have been switched to the Internet, and the recession has hurt returns on advertising and other business mail.

Of particular concern has been the decline in lucrative first-class mail, largely consisting of personal letters and cards, bills, payments and similar items. First-class mail volume fell 5.8 percent in 2011, 6.6 percent in 2010, 8.6 percent in 2009 and 4.8 percent in 2008. Traditionally, this mail has produced more than half of total revenue.

Volume for standard mail — advertising and similar items — improved somewhat, indicating some signs of economic recovery. But it generates less income.

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