LITTLE ROCK — State legislators expressed frustration Friday over the U.S. Postal Service's handling of the possible closure of rural post offices in Arkansas, even though the cash-strapped agency has put off a decision on shuttering facilities.

LITTLE ROCK — State legislators expressed frustration Friday over the U.S. Postal Service’s handling of the possible closure of rural post offices in Arkansas, even though the cash-strapped agency has put off a decision on shuttering facilities.

The Postal Service, which has operated in the red for five years, announced in July a plan to study 3,653 local post offices and branches across the country for possible closure. The list included 179 in Arkansas, or about 30 percent of the 589 postal facilities in the state.

Earlier this month, the Postal Service announced that eight postal facilities in Arkansas were among 677 nationwide that has been placed on a short list for possible closure.

Then last week, USPS announced any closures would be delayed until officials can further study ways to cut costs.

“The moratorium … will last presently through May 15 on any closures that have been identified,” Stan Sowell, manager of post offices for the USPS Arkansas district, told members of the Legislative Council on Friday. “Now the studies will continue, that process will be ongoing, but closures of post offices, stations and branches are on hold,” Sowell said.

Rep. Robert Dale, R-Dover, told Sowell and other USPS representatives at the meeting that he was frustrated with a lack of information.

“Many citizens have no idea why their post offices is on the list,” Dale complained, adding that the information they do get also keeps changing.

He said the post office at Witt Springs was on the list for closure but is now off, and the post office at Tilley has been added.

Dale and several other lawmakers also expressed concern that postal facilities in rural areas were being targeted for closure and that no one attending meetings around the state to discuss the possible closures has any real say in the matter. They requested there be more transparency in the process.

“I am for efficiency,” said Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron,. “But I am also for fairness and openness.”

Sen. Percy Malone, D-Arkadelphia, said he had hoped to talk to someone with the Postal Service who was actually going to make the decisions on which branches to close. He also suggested the profitability of the USPS was the agency’s top concern because rural post offices, which often don’t even break even, are being targeted for closure rather than the urban facilities that generate more money.

“Why don’t you just admit that you cannot compete in America and you’re going to cherry-pick where you do make money and you are going to take service away from those that are not making money,” he said.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, assured Malone that urban postal facilities are also on the closure list and some have already been closed or consolidated in Little Rock and Fort Smith.

Sowell said the final decision on which post offices to close will be made by an independent committee based on numerous factors, including the ongoing study and comments from concerned citizens. He said the financial stability of the postal facility will be considered, but that will weighed with other factors, including location and importance to the community.

In fact, Sowell said, the comments made by lawmakers during Friday’s meeting would be presented to the independent committee.

Sowell explained that the Postal Service is an independent agency that does not receive tax money and pays for itself with the sale of stamps. For the most part, he said, the agency’s financial crisis by a congressional mandate that USPS prefund its employee health plan for 10 years. Doing so costs about $5.5 billion annually, said Leisa Tolliver-Gay, spokeswoman for the postal service in Arkansas.

Tolliver-Gay said the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that the Postal Service has overfunded its employee health plan by $70 billion, but that postal officials cannot dip into that money for other uses and must continue to add money each year.

Also Friday, Rep. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, said the Legislative Council’s Personnel Subcommittee will continue its discussion Tuesday of the recent layoffs of 36 state Forestry Commission employees.

Commission Director John Shannon told the subcommittee earlier this week that he was not aware of how much trouble the commission’s finances were in until just a few months ago because the commission’s chief financial officer did not tell him.

King said he has information that casts doubt on Shannon’s comments and that the commission’s management team has been asked to attend Tuesday’s committee meeting to further discuss the issue.