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Mail-processing center closing will slow delivery; William Street facility among 233 nationwide

The U.S. Postal Service's plan to close its Buffalo mail-processing center -- endangering 700 jobs -- will mean that the card you send from your neighborhood mailbox to, say, your sister's place across town will have to get there via Rochester.

What's more, it won't get there for two or three days.

Such are the ramifications of a sweeping plan, announced Thursday, to close 223 mail-processing facilities nationwide by this time next year, including the one on William Street in Buffalo.

The Postal Service's decision, driven by its dire financial problems, appears to be final -- unless the Postal Regulatory Commission or federal lawmakers rebel en masse against the notion of local mail taking two or three days to arrive in many parts of the country.

"I think it's a done deal unless Congress comes up with some magic solution," said Timothy Freeman, president of the Printing Industries Alliance, a Buffalo-based industry group.

With postal reform legislation in the works in both houses of Congress, that just might happen.

But in the meantime, as the Postal Service prepares to transfer the operations of the William Street facility to Rochester, a new reality looms for anyone who uses the post office.

"It's important for customers to realize that if the Postal Service succeeds in their plan to ship Buffalo's mail to Rochester and then back to Buffalo for delivery, it will be a huge change," said Frank Resetarits, president of the Buffalo local of the American Postal Workers Union. "One-day delivery becomes two-day or three-day delivery in our area."

The Postal Service attributed the closure of the local mail-processing centers -- and the longer delivery times -- to the agency's bleak financial situation.

The volume of first-class mail has dropped 25 percent since 2006, leaving the Postal Service in a deep fiscal hole. Just last week, the agency said it will lose as much as $18.2 billion annually by 2015 without major changes, which also include the elimination of Saturday service and a five-cent increase in the price of stamps.

"The decision to consolidate mail-processing facilities recognizes the urgent need to reduce the size of the national mail-processing network to eliminate costly underutilized infrastructure," said Megan Brennan, chief operating officer of the Postal Service. "Consolidating operations is necessary if the Postal Service is to remain viable to provide mail service to the nation."

It's still unclear how many jobs will be lost in Buffalo because of the closing.

The Postal Service's study of the possible closure found that shutting the Buffalo operation and moving its work to Rochester would mean that the agency would have 200 excess positions in Western New York, said Karen Mazurkiewicz, the Postal Service's Buffalo spokeswoman.

The agency will try to avoid layoffs, and some of the Buffalo workers may opt to transfer to Rochester, she said. Others may choose to switch to other Postal Service jobs in Buffalo just to stay in the area, while others may retire.

And some jobs at William Street will remain. The post office and vehicle maintenance facility at 1200 William St. will stay open for the time being, as will the Business Mail Entry Unit at 55 Msgr. Valente Drive, the Postal Service said.

It's also uncertain when the mail-processing functions would move from Buffalo to Rochester.

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe told Bloomberg News Thursday that the Postal Service will close 223 of its 461 mail-processing facilities by February 2013.

But under a previously announced decision, closures could begin even sooner, taking effect as early as May 15.

That means there is little time to block the move.

The Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the Postal Service, will get the first crack on blocking the closures, albeit in a backhanded way. The commission is reviewing the Postal Service's proposal to change its service standards to slow the delivery of first-class mail.

And while the opinion the commission will issue will merely be advisory, the political weight of it could force the Postal Service to reconsider. The Postal Regulatory Commission is expected to issue its decision on that issue within a month.

Meanwhile, both houses of Congress are considering postal reform legislation -- and with it a proposal to mandate that the Postal Service continue to deliver all first-class mail within one to three days, as it does now.

If that proposal becomes law, "they have to keep the Buffalo office open," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y..

The main Senate sponsor of that proposal, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said it makes no sense for the Postal Service to slow its delivery times.

"At a time when the Postal Service is competing against the instantaneous delivery of information from email and the Internet, slowing down mail delivery service will result in less business and less revenue, and will bring about a death spiral for this institution," Sanders said.

The Postal Service insisted, however, that it had to act to balance its books.

"The steps we are taking now will put the Postal Service on a strong financial footing for decades to come," the agency said in a statement.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and local postal unions fought to keep the local mail-processing center open after the Postal Service proposed the closure last September.

And although the Postal Service held public hearings on the proposed closure, the agency seemed determined to shut the Buffalo facility all along.

"A lot of times, what you're looking at is reach," Donahoe said in proposing the closure last fall. "And if you think about the geography around Buffalo versus Rochester, you get better reach out of Rochester."

The Postal Service held public hearings to study the ramifications of each of the proposed closures, and in the end tweaked the list of doomed facilities it released last September.

Twelve facilities, including one on Staten Island, were added to the list of proposed closures on Thursday.

Meanwhile, about 30 facilities were spared the ax -- including one in Reno, Nev., in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"To suggest that this is not a political process would be naive," Higgins said.

Higgins said he would meet Monday with Donahoe, the postmaster general, to complain about the Buffalo closure decision.

Calling the process resulting in the closure "a sham," Higgins added: "It has lacked transparency. It has lacked consistency. It has lacked data to justify this decision."

Freeman, of the Printing Industries Alliance, said he didn't blame Higgins -- a junior lawmaker compared to Reid -- for failing to prevent the closure.

"I think Congressman Higgins did as much as he could do," Freeman said.

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker and News wire services contributed to this report.