Post Office Set to Close WRJ Plant

By:  Matt Clary

White River Junction  - The U.S. Postal Service is proposing to end mail processing at its White River Junction facility, a move that would eliminate about 250 jobs in the Upper Valley and lengthen the standard delivery time for first-class mail.

The recommendation comes after the Postal Service's own feasibility analysis, the results of which "support the business case for consolidation," according to a summary of the study obtained by the Valley News. Under the proposal, the mail handled in White River Junction would be diverted to Burlington and Manchester, saving the Postal Service an estimated $10 million annually.

The move to shutter the Sykes Mountain Avenue facility, which serves nearly all of Vermont outside Burlington and Montpelier and the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River Valley, is part of a nationwide effort to shed costs at the Postal Service, which has seen demand for first-class mail, its primary revenue generator, decline and annual financial losses mount.

Hundreds of processing centers across the country are under scrutiny, on top of nearly 200 that have already been closed, and similar consolidation plans have been announced from coast to coast.

"There's not enough mail in the system to keep all of the facilities busy," Tom Rizzo, a Postal Service spokesman in Portland, Maine, said in an interview yesterday.

In many places, including the Upper Valley, the changes would mean the Postal Service could no longer provide one-day delivery service for standard first-class mail, even for items headed a town or two away.

While officials in the Postal Service's Northern New England District are recommending the White River Junction consolidation, it's not a done deal yet. An hour-long public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for later this month in West Lebanon. A final ruling is expected early next year, with any changes taking effect next spring.

"The public input will be considered fully before a final decision is made," said Rizzo said.

Critics of the cost-cutting, including postal workers and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have said the reduction in services brought on by consolidations such as the one proposed for White River Junction are a misguided business plan that could ultimately lead to dismantling the Postal Service.

When it was announced in September that the White River Junction facility was going to be studied for consolidation, Sanders voiced his opposition, and he reiterated that stance yesterday, though he acknowledged it would be an uphill battle to reverse the recommendation.

"I don't want to make false promises," Sanders said in a telephone interview yesterday. "It's going to be a tough fight. We're going to work as hard as we can."

Sanders contends that while technological changes and the recession hit the Postal Service hard, the more significant problem is a requirement, imposed in 2006 by Congress, that Postal Service pre-fund its pension system with billions of dollars annually over a 10-year period.

Yesterday, Sanders called the pension requirement "onerous," and noted that funding requirements have created liquidity problems for the Postal Service the past two years.

Sanders and others in Congress have introduced legislation that would eliminate or modify the pension requirement for the next five years, but given the timeline Postal Service officials have set for consolidation plans, lawmakers would need to act quickly, something Sanders acknowledged was an uncertainty.

"I don't want to see radical action taken by the Postal Service before Congress has a chance to take its own action," Sanders said.

William Creamer Jr., branch president of the postal workers union, said in an interview yesterday that postal workers are bracing for the likelihood that the consolidation plan will be implemented.

"Generally, they say it's not a foregone conclusion," Creamer said. "But most of the decisions are being made way up the line. ... We don't stand a very good chance."

Many of the workers in White River Junction would be offered jobs at other processing plants, but Creamer said most of those positions would require workers to uproot their lives. The Upper Valley would suffer the loss of more than 200 jobs, he said, and an even larger area would see diminished services. "The people that are going to be hurt the most by this are in the north and in central Vermont," Creamer said.

Creamer also criticized the timing of the public hearing on the White River Junction decision. The one-hour meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on a Thursday. The busiest shift at the processing center is second shift, which starts around 2 p.m., and Thursday is perhaps the busiest day of the week, Creamer said. Additionally, the meeting comes smack in the heart of the busy holiday season.

Creamer said those factors would limit the number of postal workers who could turn out for the hearing.

"We're hoping that a lot of people from the community will come out and voice their displeasure," Creamer said.

Residents at the public forum later this month could go a long way toward determining the fate of the White River Junction facility, he said, though even a spirited turnout doesn't offer any guarantees.

"In some cases, people have flooded this meeting and they still did it," Creamer said.

The Postal Services public forum is scheduled for 6 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Fireside Inn and Suites on Airport Road in West Lebanon. The White River Junction processing center is also on Hartford Selectboard's meeting agenda for Tuesday night.