Heitkamp introduces rural mail bill aimed at improving standards
WASHINGTON -- U.S., Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced a bill Thursday in Washington, D.C. addressing rural mail delivery and service standards. Heitkamp said the new legislation is the product of a long process of gathering public input, la...
WASHINGTON -- U.S., Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced a bill Thursday in Washington, D.C. addressing rural mail delivery and service standards.
Heitkamp said the new legislation is the product of a long process of gathering public input, largely through her North Dakota Fix My Mail initiative first launched in Dickinson in January 2014.
“This is the continuation of a lot of work we’ve been doing a long time on postal delivery, especially in North Dakota but also more broadly in rural communities,” she said. “... We have spent a lot of time listening, a lot of time working on solutions.”
The mail-focused grassroots initiative accumulated stories of U.S. Postal Service shortcomings from more than 200 North Dakota residents and was accompanied by a 2015 audit of the North Dakota mail service conducted by the Office of the Inspector General.
That audit, when viewed in accordance with a Government Accountability Office report on Postal Service standards, reveals a “failure to make a long-term commitment to rural communities,” Heitkamp said.
“Nationwide, only 63 percent of non-local mail arrives on time within the three to five days, and that was last quarter,” she said. “That is 30 percent below the Postal Service’s own annual goal, and from 2001 to 2013, nearly 400 post offices have been closed across the country.”
Heitkamp said rural mail service is harmed by such closures and past attempts for reform have resulted in reduced services to rural Americans.
It was necessary, she said, to “constantly remind folks that rural America matters.”
“That postal delivery service, maintaining that infrastructure, is absolutely critical for rural development,” she said. “And so we’re pretty interested in making sure that this becomes a very high priority whenever we talk about the Postal Service.”
Heitkamp said the bill attempted to specifically address rural mail concerns by implementing increased service standards and preserving the six-day delivery system in order to provide “certainty” to postal workers.
The bill “would protect rural post offices from closures,” and would require such offices to undergo “specific procedures” before reducing their hours of operation, according to a news release from Heitkamp’s office.
The bill would also place a two-year moratorium on closing any additional mail processing facilities and would create the position of chief morale officer for the Postal Service to provide oversight on “working conditions, staffing, communication and training efforts.”
Heitkamp introduced the bill with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Gary Peters, D-Mich.
She said they had hosted a bipartisan meeting with the U.S. Postmaster General and that “(they) expect we’re going to get a lot of interest” from Republicans representing rural states as the bill moves forward in the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs , which holds jurisdiction over the Postal Service and which Heitkamp is a ranking member of.
Dickinson City Commissioner Klayton Oltmanns was on the panel of Heitkamp's first public forum for the Fix My Mail initiative, and said in a statement that he thought the bill would improve rural mail service.
He expanded on that in an interview, saying that reliable mail service was especially valuable to people in rural areas.
“People really do depend on rural service,” he said. “For their medication, for their bills, income checks. Think of everything you can get in the mail, and if you live in a rural area it’s more exacerbated because if you have fewer and fewer shopping options. … It’s a vital thing.”
Oltmanns said rural mail service wasn’t just for “someone who lives out on a farm.” His own business in town has experienced issues stemming from inefficiencies with the rural mail system.
“In Dickinson, although we look at ourselves as the second-fastest growing micropolitan in the United States, we still are affected by rural mail delivery,” he said. “My business is in heart of Dickinson, but it is on a rural mail route.”
Peter Nowacki, a North Dakota representative of the U.S. Postal Service, said in a statement that his office appreciated Heitkamp’s focus on postal system legislation.
“The Postal Service needs comprehensive postal reform that resolves our retiree health benefits prepayment, with full Medicare integration, and returns us to a sustainable financial path,” Nowacki stated. “We look forward to working with Senator Heitkamp and other members of Congress to enact comprehensive postal reform.”
Oltmanns said he thought rural areas across the country would benefit from the bill and that he liked what he saw as a North Dakota ethos in its planning.
“Although Heidi Heitkamp is our senator and she’s doing it for the rural service in North Dakota, it’s really going to be a hallmark for the entire country,” he said. “And I think that’s kind of the legacy of North Dakota. The way that we work is that we look at things from a common-sense approach and try to figure what will work in our communities, and she’s trying to take that across the nation.”