U.S. Postal Service officials say a financial crisis is prompting a study concerning consolidation of Hickory's mail processing center into a similar operation in Greensboro.
"We are facing an acute financial crisis," USPS Greensboro District Manager Russ Gardner said, adding increases in electronic communication, a decline in first-class mail volume and an economic recession are impacting the postal service's bottom line. "We continue to deliver to more than 1 million residences every year, but we have less mail. We have got to do it smarter, faster and more efficiently."
At the same time, area leaders say closing the Hickory mail processing facility will amplify an ongoing unemployment crisis endured in the Hickory Metro, while deteriorating the quality of mail service citizens and businesses in the area enjoy.
"We care about jobs in Hickory, whether it is 40 jobs or 200 jobs, we don't want to lose any of these jobs," said Hickory City Council member Hank Guess. "That ought to be our No. 1 priority, and we are opposed to any job loss."
On Tuesday, USPS hosted a town hall meeting to discuss Hickory Area Mail Processing, or AMP. The meeting, according to Gardner and other USPS officials, was part of a study to determine whether Hickory's mail processing and distribution center should be consolidated into a Greensboro facility 81 miles away. At stake are 196 jobs, all of which will be impacted in some way if the Hickory facility closes, although USPS officials say only 44 positions will be eliminated in the consolidation. Other workers might be relocated to other locations, including Greensboro.
"The AMP is a consolidation study, and right now we are looking at consolidating the incoming (mail operation)," Greensboro district senior plant manager Don Kelly said. "We have to change the postal service to adapt to the business environment, and that is why we are looking at this study today."
Kelly said no decisions have been made regarding consolidation, while Gardner argued that if consolidation does occur, mail service won't be impacted.
"Delivery service will remain the same," he said. "Retail will not change and business mail acceptance will continue. Drop shipments won't change. This should be transparent to most customers."
People attending the town hall meeting were skeptical of the USPS promises, particularly with respect to service. After USPS moved "outgoing mail" operations from Hickory to Greensboro, quality of service declined, according to Conover Mayor Lee Moritz Jr.
"We did our own AMP study. 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 continued.
Granite Falls business owner Keith Oxford said previous mail consolidation efforts have impacted his business.
"I have noticed a tremendous deterioration of service over time," he said. "I know there has been times when it has taken 12 days to get a letter (from Granite Falls) to Blowing Rock. ... As a small business, I need to see more than the $3.5 million in savings. I need to see how that savings is determined."
According to opponents, consolidation will impact 82 cities in 11 counties, and while USPS officials say the process will save $3.5 million, that number, as well as the impact on customer service, changed since April. Previously USPS said savings would amount to $5.7 million and customer service will not be impacted.
"How did you arrive at these figures if you have not done a study?" consolidation opponent Mike Morris asked. "This seems like a performance when you have already made a decision."
Other speakers during the meeting questioned how USPS expects to reduce costs when consolidation means mail will be shipped 81 miles at a time when gas prices approach $4 per gallon. Further, for employees at the Hickory facility who are relocated, USPS will pay moving expenses.
"We take this seriously. The first thing on our mind is our employees.
We never forget that," Gardner said. "The good thing about the postal service is we don't lay-off. We don't let people go. We offer people incentives to retire. ... We understand this is not what people want to hear. This has a big impact for a community. It weighs heavily on us."
Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright, who was among Conover elected officials and representatives from the offices U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, had his own idea for protecting jobs.
"We ask you to take away bias in doing the AMP. Get rid of that, and give consideration to moving the operation to Hickory," he said. "We believe we can do these jobs.
"Tighten up your numbers — I have seen three different bottom lines— and give thought to letting this (Hickory processing operation) continue," he said.
Conover's mayor backed up that request with performance results for the Hickory facility.
"The Hickory facility has won several national awards for service and efficiency," Moritz said. "They are hard working folks with unwavering loyalty to service."