Columbia postal center could take on mail from Quincy, Ill.

Thursday, November 17, 2011 | 6:55 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The Columbia postal distribution center is ready and available to absorb the mail that its counterpart in Quincy, Ill., handles, a Columbia postal service spokesman said Thursday.

The move is being contemplated as the U.S. Postal Service looks for ways to consolidate and cut costs. In 2010, the agency's revenue, operating income and net income all posted losses, prompting Congress to look at multiple proposals to help cut back costs.

One way to do so is to consolidate some of its operations.

Howard Hutton, customer relations coordinator for the Postal Service in Columbia, said the Columbia distribution center at Columbia Regional Airport handles an average of about 300,000 pieces of mail per night. During the holiday season, that number can increase to around 1 million.

"We are staffed low here even though we run around the clock, 24 hours a day," Hutton said. "The facility is plenty big to take on what could come from Quincy. It is logistically feasible for us to expand." 

About 130 people work at the Columbia postal plant. The Quincy plant employs around 70, according to a report in the Quincy Herald-Whig.

Processing and delivery facilities distribute mail to assigned regions and are categorized by size into tiers. The Columbia plant takes care of mail for mid-Missouri, meaning areas with zip codes beginning with the numbers 650, 652 and 653.

Quincy, which is across the Mississippi River from Hannibal and about two hours from Columbia, serves areas with zip codes beginning with 623, 634 and, occasionally, 635.

Valerie Welsch, a St. Louis spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said the idea of combining the Columbia and Quincy plants is still in the study phase, so it's difficult to know yet what the impact might be in terms of jobs or mail services.

Although she has not directly heard from employees in Quincy, she said she is sure they are concerned about their jobs. The Postal Service will comply with labor agreements with union associations if the consolidation happens, she said.

Welsch said the consolidation is not simply to cut costs and save money.

"The Postal Service has been looking to realign the processing network nationwide for some time," Welsch said. "We are finding out what works for local needs and accommodating them."

Combining the facilities would mean much more mail volume for Columbia. Hutton said the Columbia plant would probably need more equipment and, possibly, a larger facility. Welsch, however, said existing equipment might suffice.

"Because there has been a decrease in first-class mail volume, there is more equipment not being used than being used," Welsch said. "There has been an overall drop in mail volume."

In other words, the increase in mail to Columbia that a Quincy plant closure would bring would simply offset the decrease that Columbia, like the rest of the nation, has seen, Welsch said. The average total daily volume Columbia would gain from Quincy would be around 472,000 pieces of first-handled mail per day.

Chris Reed, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 763, worried about the changes a consolidation would bring, even though it could bring around 50 new jobs to town. 

"The addition of the Quincy plant would mean that their mail would run before Columbia mail," Reed said. "One day would have to be added to delivery time here, meaning offices and letter carriers would be open and out later."

Although he said the merger would be good for Columbia's economy in a broader sense, it could mean a decline in customer service.

Reed doesn't expect the move to happen any time soon. He said the Quincy plant won't be closed unless Congress decides it's OK to relax delivery standards.

A public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday in Quincy to discuss the idea. Welsch said the Postal Service will accept written comments for another 15 days beyond that. In any case, she doesn't anticipate any changes before the end of the year.

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