Post office part of larger debate How much should all of us pay to support some of us? That's the question both the U.S. Postal Service and the rest of the federal government are asking, the difference being that the post office is actually trying to answer it. The post office, funded entirely by customers and not by taxpayers, has proposed a number of cost-cutting reforms because of a $10 billion deficit this year and because of a business model it knows won't work in the future.

Post office part of larger debate How much should all of us pay to support some of us? Thatís the question both the U.S. Postal Service and the rest of the federal government are asking, the difference being that the post office is actually trying to answer it. The post office, funded entirely by customers and not by taxpayers, has proposed a number of cost-cutting reforms because of a $10 billion deficit this year and because of a business model it knows wonít work in the future.

The most controversial proposal involves closing post offices. About 3,700 nationwide and 179 of the 583 in Arkansas are being studied for closure. Mail delivery would continue in those areas regardless.

Making the numbers add up has been made harder for the USPS because of the politics involved. Faced with pressure from affected constituents and their elected representatives, the postal service has said it wonít make a decision until at least May 15.

It is somewhat ironic that the members of Congress who canít come close to balancing the nationís budget are nitpicking postal service officials for trying to balance theirs.

Where the post office is now, the rest of the federal government soon will be. With the national debt rocketing past $15 trillion, Congress and the president also are talking about the governmentís unsustainable business model but arenít making hard choices. Eventually, like the post office they will have to do so, and when they do it will affect all of our lives much more deeply than the question of where we buy our stamps.

Among the arguments against closing the local post offices is that they are hubs upon which communities depend, and losing them would strike a blow to those communities. If that argument sounds familiar, it comes up a lot in the debate about consolidating schools. The counterargument is that if a community is hanging by such a thread that closing a school or post office would destroy it, then it wasnít a very strong community.

Which brings us back to the question of how much all of us should pay to support some of us.

What saves a community isnít a post office; itís when people have a real reason to stay or to move there. Millions of taxpayer dollars invested in economic and community development efforts in certain parts of the state havenít changed the fact that people are moving to where the jobs are. Northwest Arkansas once was poor, despite being home to the stateís flagship university, but then Walmart came along and now itís prosperous. The natural gas industry in north Arkansas could create the same dynamic.

Granted, those arguments donít mean much to people who are watching their rural communities melt away. Moreover, when a town dies, a lot more is lost than just a place on a map. These very small towns may not be the stateís foundation, but they do provide many of its support beams. The farmer in the middle of the Delta needs a town within driving distance, and the rest of us need to eat what that farmer produces. At the same time, all of the rural taxpayers also pay to support some of the urbanites. About $70 million a year, raised throughout the state, go to Pulaski Countyís three school districts to pay for desegregation efforts, as if only those schools had difficulties with race relations 40 years ago and since. The Big Dam Bridge walkway connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock across the Arkansas River was funded in part through government grants, but itís mostly pedestrians from central Arkansas who walk across it. Thereís a post office on the bottom floor of the state Capitol, probably the most urban plot of real estate in Arkansas. Itís being considered for closure as well and, if post offices are going to be cut in rural Arkansas, probably should be.

How much should all of us pay to support some of us? The answer is not ďzero,Ē but it is, ďless than we are now.Ē How much less? Thatís a tough question ó one that the post office, compared to Congress and to much of the rest of the federal government, seems most serious about answering.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog ó Independent Arkansas ó is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com.