Technology, availability alter how mail is sent, received

Swift changes have come in recent years to the ways people must send letters and packages to one another — affecting everything from pickup locations to lengths some locals must go to purchase postage stamps.

It’s been especially acute for older residents forced to travel out of the way to handle mailing needs.

“That’s the reason I would go to the post office,” Warren County resident Peggy King said. “To buy stamps.”

King and other seniors who socialize at Vicksburg Senior Center have purchased stamps online or at grocery or drug stores since stamp vending machines were removed from the Pemberton post office in October 2007. They are split on how they’ve dealt with stamps moving online and the dwindling of neighborhood pickup boxes.

Pat McNair, 77, uses her credit union to pay bills online, thus eliminating the need for stamps. She visits the post office on Pemberton only when necessary.

Luther Newton, 75, yearns for a one of the Postal Service’s signature blue pickup boxes nearer to his Bellaire Drive home.

“Now, you go stand in line from here to that wall over there,” he said of doing business at the Pemberton post office.

With most pickup boxes now found at post office branches — instead of being on many street corners as recently as 10 years ago — Vicksburg is a reflection of  the gradual drawdown in the scope of postal services, Jackson-based spokesman Doug Kyle said.

“Some have been withdrawn,” said Kyle, adding some of the boxes have been rolled into regular carrier routes. “There’s been some streamlining of that.”

Pickup boxes are found at 11 locations in Vicksburg, with most near businesses.

Boxes at the old Crawford Street branch next to City Hall face the Municipal Rose Garden and southbound Monroe Street, meaning the driver without a passenger must park and walk around his car to slip an envelope into the box.

“You take a chance getting out of the car,” said Eunice Lewis, adding she frequently uses a drop box at Adams and Jackson streets, adjacent to the parking lot of the Warren County Courthouse.

Postal Service revenues have been falling for several years, due to the use of e-mail and to national economic trends including fuel prices. Losses for fiscal 2008 totaled $2.8 billion despite about $2 billion in cost cuts, which included 50 million fewer labor hours compared with 2007. Mail volume dipped to 9.5 billion pieces, 4.5 percent less than last year. Mail delivery routes inside cities nationwide will be changed in 2008 to reduce costs, mirroring what already happens annually to rural routes.

An increase in postage stamp costs from the current 42 cent rate will be announced by the Postal Service in February.

Then, Kyle said, an economics-based decision will be made on whether an Automated Postal Center will be installed in Vicksburg. The machine that can weigh packages, print postage and sell stamps that has replaced stamps-only machines in many large U.S. cities.

“You have to make a business case out of it,” Kyle said. “We look at the revenue a post office is bringing in, such as debit and credit card transactions.”

Seven such machines are in use in Mississippi post offices — two in Jackson and one each in Madison, Ridgeland, Ocean Springs, Gulfport, Hattiesburg and Southaven. Funds collected at each are evaluated periodically and figures into how and where the machines are rotated, sometimes from one state to another, Kyle said.

Additional hikes to become effective a week from today include a 5.8 percent increase for shipping packages. Priority mailing will vary from $4.95 to $13.95, based on size. Overnight express mail for envelopes will start at $14.96, up from $12.60. Along with price hikes will come more size options for boxes, including a new box size described in a release this week as the size of three stacked DVD cases.

UPS also has announced wide-ranging rate and surcharge hikes for 2009, most notably a 10-cent increase in daily area surcharges for commercial and residential addresses and a $2 increase for address corrections. The company’s rates are based on weight and destination type, but comparisons show price hikes for 2009 for UPS and FedEx are about 2 percent more than the Postal Service’s increases because of various surcharges for fuel, delivery area and other fees.

Postal services downtown ended in September when customers were asked to close out post office boxes at the hulking Crawford Street landmark. The site is owned by Delta Court LLC, headed by local developer Shirley Waring. The group has eyed redevelopment of the site for luxury hotel space, with financing driving the timetable.

“The loss of the downtown station was regrettable,” Kyle said, adding efforts have been halted to find a business to contract as a postal service outpost. Most businesses and parties that showed initial interest cited the cost involved with staffing and space requirements.

Changes at the federal level to the Postal Service’s operations became clearer in December with a report to Congress by the Postal Regulatory Commission, which sets postal rates. The Postal Act of 2006, which enabled the Postal Service to set prices to respond to the private sector, also required the presidentially appointed panel to examine its statutory monopoly on delivering mail, or the “Mailbox Rule” which grew out of legislation in 1934 making it a crime to deliver mail to a mailbox without postage.

Any relaxation to the Mailbox Rule is expected to result in private couriers being allowed to deliver directly to mailboxes as well as the Postal Service.

In the PRC report, no changes to its universal service obligation were recommended. Additional studies commissioned in 2008 by the Postal Service regarding security of the mail delivered to mailboxes concluded with specific concerns over opening access to residential mail to private shippers.

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