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The U.S. Postal Service is closing its mail processing and distribution operations in Catawba County. The Conover facility currently employs nearly 200 people.
"If I want to send you a postcard (to Newton), this means it will now have to go to Greensboro first," said Conover Mayor Lee Moritz Jr. "This news is not only disappointing to Conover, but to the entire region. ... Our region has been impacted with enough jobs (lost). This is just another blow on our economy."
With the decision announced to area media outlets late Friday afternoon, USPS will relocate mail processing operations currently occurring in Conover and consolidate them into a similar facility about 80 miles east. USPS officials were not available for comment Monday.
"This consolidation will help keep mail processing costs down by using available capacity at the Greensboro plant and will contribute toward the Postal Service's goal of increasing efficiency and improving productivity," USPS District Manager Russell Gardner said in a press release distributed Friday. "It was a difficult decision, but it makes good business sense to consolidate operations in order to remain viable and provide mail service to the nation. I am confident the transition will be smooth and transparent to our customers because of our excellent employees."
Consolidation is expected to be completed by February 2012, and when completed the processing and distribution facility in Catawba County will close. Gardner said the consolidation of processing and distribution operations "will not cause any changes in local mail service."
Local government officials disagree. As USPS officials conducted an Area Mail Processing (AMP) study, officials from both Conover and Hickory voiced opposition to closing the processing center in Catawba County. Conover officials, in particular, said that previous USPS consolidation efforts relocating outgoing mail processing operations already delivered a negative impact to mail service the city receives. In a May public hearing, Moritz detailed the problems his city has endured.
"Conover bills an average 6,000 customers each month. Since April 2010, we have seen a nine-fold increase in returned bills," he said, adding these problems have caused serious issues for the city. "We have to track down, re-process, adjust late fees, and in some cases, have cut-off water to our otherwise good citizens.
"To be honest gentlemen, if we had another option for service, we would certainly consider it," Moritz said during the May public hearing.
Some of those issues have been corrected Moritz told The O-N-E on Monday, but his concerns have not been alleviated.
"We have proven there will be a delay in mail service and we are still experiencing issues with water bills and other mail like that which we send to our citizens," Mortiz said. "I am going to make the assumption the U.S. Postal Service has made this decision based on the necessity of income, but it won't help service for our citizens for sure."
Conover City Manager Donald Duncan added that a decline in service for postal customers is likely to extend nationwide.
"I look at the postal service as I look at city services, like police, fire and utilities. We are there to provide equal service at an efficient price," he said. "I don't think the postal service has done that. I don't see them looking at it as a service."
Duncan also said he believes concerns of local government officials were not heard.
"I think the city tried very hard to communicate with the postal service, but we were not able to get a face-to-face meeting," he said. "We tried to travel to D.C. and meet, but we were not given an appropriate voice or an opportunity for local elected officials to sit across the table from postal administrators and look them in the eye."
Throughout the AMP study, USPS employees have been very dedicated to opposing the closure announced Friday, Duncan said. Many of those employees travelled with Conover officials to express concerns in Raleigh and in Washington, D.C., Moritz said, adding the 196 people who work in the mail processing center will be affected by its closure.
"It is going to absolutely affect their lives," he said, "and that is the reason why we were pushing so hard, along with a lot of others, to keep this from happening. I want to express my sympathy toward those folks â€”Â they are hard workers."
The release from USPS states that "some affected career employees may be reassigned to the Greensboro or to other vacant positions."
Opponents to mail processing consolidation said closing the facility in Conover will impact 82 cities in 11 North Carolina counties.
"This is not really a Conover issue," Moritz said. "The facility is in Conover, but the impact of the jobs and really the service is going to affect Western North Carolina."
Postal officials said in May that consolidation of the mail processing center from Conover to Greensboro will create savings of about $3.5 million, though that number has changed throughout the course of the AMP study.
According to the USPS release, for business mailers, the Hickory processing and distributions facility "Business Mail Entry Unit" will be relocated to the Hickory Main Post Office.