- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2001

The U.S. Postal Service needs "several billions" of dollars to make the nation's mail safer, and postal rates will go up again if the federal government doesn't bail the agency out, Postmaster General John E. "Jack" Potter told a Senate panel yesterday.
The Postal Service which lost $1.65 billion in last fiscal year and faces more than $1.3 billion in losses this year has requested rate increases three times this year, with the latest request put before the Postal Rate Commission on Sept. 24. That would increase the price of a 34-cent first-class stamp by three cents and add $5.3 billion to the agency's $70 billion annual revenue.
"At this point in time, we are going to look to find other means of paying for some of the steps we have to take for the mail," Mr. Potter told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "We are looking for appropriations."
When asked again by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, if the Postal Service would request another rate increase to make up for losses from the September 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax-letter attacks, Mr. Potter said an increase would be considered if Congress does not appropriate funds.
The Postal Service has said it needs $2.5 billion to pay for equipment that can irradiate mail, ensuring harmful bacteria are killed. A senior postal official said the amount Mr. Potter intends to request from Congress to deal with the crisis is "more than $5 billion."
Steve Sharfman, general counsel for the Postal Rate Commission, said if Congress declines to give the Postal Service more money, an emergency rate increase could be requested. The Rate Commission must approve postal-rate changes before they are implemented.
"I wouldn't say it would be necessarily easy to do," Mr. Sharfman said. "They have never done that before."
Typically the Postal Service requests a rate change, public hearings on the matter are held over a 10-month period and then the Rate Commission decides on whether a rate change should take effect. A decision on last month's rate increase request is expected in September.
Steven W. Williams, a senior aide of Rate Commission Chairman George A. Omas, said "it is a concern" if the Postal Service asks to raise rates again. "At this stage, we are just kind of watching," Mr. Williams said.
President Bush has authorized $175 million in emergency funding for the Postal Service for purchasing safety equipment. Those funds came from the $40 billion Congress authorized shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Mr. Potter said yesterday he is grateful for the funding, but more is needed to assure Americans their mail and postal workers are safe.
"We do not have an estimate of what the impact of this anthrax situation will be," Mr. Potter said. "We have costs associated with masks, gloves and other operational procedures that are just going to change the way we do business."
Sens. Joseph I Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, said they will try to get needed funding to the Postal Service. "We're going to be an influence to get those funds to you as quickly as possible," Mr. Cochran said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Henry A. Waxman criticized the Postal Service for not having an emergency plan while having contingencies for attacks against other targets.
"As a result, the Postal Service is now trying to do emergency planning at the worst possible time in the midst of a crisis," the California Democrat said at a House Government Reform Committee hearing,.
Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth Weaver defended the agency in his testimony before the committee, saying the mail has never been used to deliver biohazardous materials like anthrax before.
"We are in the midst of an unprecedented attack on our nation's mail system," he said.
Lawmakers questioned why the first anthrax case in Florida didn't lead to more postal service closures of worker testing.
Mr. Potter said the lethal bacteria exist naturally and, having never seen it used as a biological weapon, authorities could not determine where the anthrax spores came from.
Kristina Stefanova contributed to this report.

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