Robin Trudel

Fairview rural mail carrier Robin Trudell makes a stop along her 82-mile route that takes her along county roads outside town in November 2015.

HOLLY MICHELS, Billings Gazette

BILLINGS — Rosebud School students know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, which is why the U.S. Postal Service’s mail route to this tiny Eastern Montana town is a head-scratcher.

”The mail goes by us like two times before it gets here,” said Lori Reierson, who works in the school’s main office.

Letters from the sorting center in Billings are trucked past Rosebud to Miles City, then trucked by again from Miles City to Forsyth, before making it to the school.

The mail has taken this spaghetti noodle route since 2011, when the debt-ridden U.S. Postal Service began cutting sorting centers and limiting local post office hours to four on weekdays and none on Saturdays.

USPS has closed processing centers in Butte, Havre, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City and Wolf Point since 2011. More mail now moves through processing centers like the one in Billings.

Observers say improvements aren’t on a fast track with President Donald Trump. Postal service reform hasn’t been a priority. Congressional leaders are forecasting postal reform in the next two years.

Still, mail-dependent businesses like small newspapers are lobbying for reform. Jim Rickman, CEO of the Montana Newspaper Association, said he’s writing congressional letters. Montana's U.S. Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, Jon Tester, a Democrat, are both members of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which handles U.S. Postal Service matters.

“I just recently penned a letter to Daines’s office as an invitation for the National Newspaper Association to visit with him about how bad delivery service is for newspapers, especially community newspapers,” Rickman said. “So many local newspapers have had to basically work around this at a much higher expense.”

Local first-class mail has a gone from two-day delivery to three-day. That schedule doesn’t include Sundays and holidays. Mail that straddles those dates can take four days for delivery.

Second-class postage takes longer. Rickman said postal facilities along the processing route can sit on mail for up to three days if necessary. Multiple delays can keep a subscriber out of state from receiving a community newspaper for 14 days.

Postal Service problems are significant. Americans are paying more bills and doing more business online, and periodical mailing is down. Daily mail volume has diminished 59 billion pieces from a 2006 peak of 213 billion, to 154 billion pieces last year, according to USPS data.

Congress has also required USPS since 2006 to prefund health benefits for future employees, a mandate that puts the post office on the hook for a $5.5 billion deposit annually. The Postal Service is the only government agency required to pay for benefits for workers who aren’t currently on its payroll. Proponents argue USPS would be in better financial shape if the requirement were lifted, though the decline in mail would still be an issue. The Government Accountability Office found in 2012 that the majority of the nation’s 32,000 post offices operate at a loss.

USPS loses about $5 billion a year. It owes $52 billion to its retirement fund.

Rural Montana post offices have been on the chopping block. In 2012 there were 85 Montana post offices considered for closure, part of a bigger 3,700 post office cut nationwide.

Montana avoided closures, but settled for cut hours at 186 post offices.

“The Postal Service is critical for families, seniors, and small businesses, especially in rural states like Montana. To ensure the Postal Service can continue to support Montana’s economy, we need to pass a bill that puts the Postal Service on sound financial footing, prohibits any further facility closures, and improves delivery across the state,” Tester said.

Tester wants to ratchet up delivery standards for rural areas to make sure everything from prescription drugs to mail ballots are being delivered quickly. Better tracking of mail has been a focus of those efforts.

The Senate isn’t likely to take up postal reform until the House does. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is working on the Postal Reform Act, a bill chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has said getting a bill to Trump in two years is a goal.

The House bill tackles the health benefit funding mandate, calling on it to be balanced in 40 years. It does not prevent future mail sorting facility closures, which are scheduled for another round. It allows USPS to raise postal rates 2.15 percent, about a penny for a first-class stamp. USPS is not allowed to raise postal rates without congressional approval.

Tester said he would like to eliminate the prefunding mandate for retiree health insurance benefits.

“The bill in the U.S. House is a hopeful start,” Tester said. “While I do want some tweaks to that bill, I’m hopeful that we can move forward with legislation to quickly address the retiree fund deficit and provide the Postal Service more flexibility to expand services and options for consumers.”

Moving forward, Daines has indicated that he supports maintaining current postal service in Montana.

Earlier this year, there were concerns that the Postal Service would be included in a hiring freeze mandated by President Trump, but USPS has been exempted.

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