Lining up county ballots

Amy Maki, left, and Dottie Kottwitz, right, line up county ballots in the same direction before inserting them in the tabbing machine to be sealed. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun / March 6, 2012)

Kathie Jones loses more than patience when the mail is late. She also loses customers.

As the owner of a small business that prepares bulk mail for delivery by the U.S. Postal Service, Jones hears complaints every time a church newsletter or a political ad she sends arrives late — even if the delays are not her fault. If mail is lost, she has to start projects over, sometimes eating the cost.

So Jones is understandably wary about a Postal Service proposal to close the last mail-sorting hub on the Eastern Shore, located a few hundred feet from the Easton Municipal Airport. The agency is studying whether it would save money by consolidating the mail facility with another one in Wilmington, Del.

If that happens, a letter mailed across the street in Easton, for instance, would travel 160 miles before arriving.

"All the mail is going to have to be trucked to a facility in Wilmington and then trucked back down again," said Jones, who opened Blue Heron Mailing 13 years ago and now has two full-time employees and one part-time worker. "It's going to be a mess."

Business owners and residents in Easton are once again fighting plans to shutter the hub, which was threatened with closure in 2010 and again last year. Many residents, including Jones, say the facility is an essential economic link between the mostly rural Shore and the rest of Maryland.

Seniors fear the move would slow delivery of mail-order prescription drugs. The chef of a restaurant in Easton's historic downtown worries about receiving specialty ingredients. Talbot County officials note that the mail center has 126 workers — making it a significant employer in the region.

Closing the plant would take $19 million from the Eastern Shore's economy and would wipe out $150,000 in annual income tax revenue for local governments, according to a recent Sage Policy Group study conducted for the local postal workers union.

"This isn't about how fast you get your postcards from St. Michaels," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has fought past attempts to move the hub and who has promised to do so again this year. "This is really about maintaining the economic vitality of the region."

But to the Postal Service, which is losing billions of dollars a year, the consolidation of Easton and similar processing facilities across the country may be critical to its survival. The agency needs to trim $20 billion from its operating costs by 2015.

An earlier Postal Service study found that closing Easton would save about $6 million.

The Postal Service said last year that the Eastern Shore Processing and Distribution Facility was one of 264 sorting centers nationwide it would study for closure. Easton's handles mail for ZIP codes beginning with "216" or "218," an area that runs from Ocean City to Kent County, north of the Bay Bridge.

Of the facilities studied, the Postal Service will close 223, keep 35 open and continue to study six — including the Easton hub. A sorting center in Cumberland will be moved to Johnstown, Pa. Hubs in Gaithersburg and Waldorf will merge into Capitol Heights in Prince George's County. There are about 500 mail-sorting facilities nationwide.

None of the closures will take place before May 15.

Yvette B. Singh, a Postal Service spokeswoman, noted the financial shortfalls the agency has faced as it wrestles with competition from e-mail and online bill payment. The service lost $25.4 billion between 2007 and 2011 because of an 18 percent drop in mail volume as well as spiraling health care costs for retirees.

Singh stressed that the postal system does not receive taxpayer support.

"We're matching our workload to the space that we have," she said. "We're basically trying to utilize our space better."

But the proposal has left Easton residents with questions.

Sitting in the parking lot of Easton's brick post office, 72-year-old Paul Morrissey said he's worried about getting prescription drugs on time. It's usually cheaper to order drugs by mail, but he said his insurance company balks at refills until his current supply has nearly run out.

Morrissey, who lives in nearby Cordova, said he's also worried about the impact on the region's fragile economy. Talbot County's unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, higher than the state's overall 6.6 percent.