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The check is in the mail

People and politicians alike need to be prepared to let the old Postal Service go, lest their efforts to save it instead end up dooming it.

We are not advocating abandoning the Postal Service or its employees, but rather allowing the agency to make the changes necessary to survive in an environment in which its principal product is now tagged with the pejorative title of "snail mail."

There is certainly change afoot at local post offices. In this past week alone, we've run stories about plans to downsize the Central Point post office and the in-progress move of the Medford post office to smaller quarters on Riverside Avenue. Preceding those stories was a series of national and regional reports about proposed closures of small post offices and mail-handling centers.

In most of these stories — the Medford move may be the exception — community members and politicians decried the plans and, in the case of the proposed closures, appear to have stopped them from happening.

But those may be pyrrhic victories. Because if the immediate result of the actions is to preserve the status quo for a debt-ridden operation, the end result may be to doom it to failure.

The importance of the Postal Service has diminished in most of our lives. At work, the daily stacks of mail have been reduced to a handful of mostly throw-away direct-mail pieces. At home, we get magazines, the same throw-away pieces, an increasingly smaller number of bills, and the occasional letter from an older relative.

But news of note — personal and otherwise — now travels in the blink of an eye, delivered via websites, email and social media.

Want to see pictures of your new grandchild? They're posted on Facebook or sent to you through your smartphone. Wondering about the status of your investment account or credit card balance? A user name, password and website will deliver the information to you when you want it, not when the company wants to send it to you.

All of this is good for consumers, but an enormous threat to the Postal Service, which now is losing billions of dollars annually as mail volume decreases and it deals with legacy labor costs. According to a GAO report, first-class mail volume peaked in fiscal 2001 at nearly 104 billion pieces, but has dropped by nearly 30 percent in the past decade. In 2010, fewer than 50 percent of all bills sent to Americans were paid by mail.

The Postal Service is not sitting idly by. It has put forward proposals to trim costs by shrinking its delivery network and renegotiating labor contracts, which would save about $22.5 billion by 2016.

A Senate bill passed in April would allow some of that to occur, but also ties the hands of budget-cutters and in doing so makes it less likely that meaningful steps will be taken to reinvigorate the post office.

The bill forbids the elimination of Saturday delivery for two years, and makes it tougher for the service to close many of the more than 450 mail-processing plants that no longer are necessary given the drop in mail volume. It kowtows to the wishes of politicians in making it difficult to close local post offices.

Those politicians, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley among them, are crowing that they have saved postal service for some of their rural constituents. But we fear they are only making the financial hole that much deeper.

The House is expected to come up with its own postal reform bill this summer, and initial details suggest it would allow for a quicker end to Saturday service and set up a process similar to the military base closure commission to determine which post offices should close. The devil is in the details, but those ideas make sense to us.

All things being equal, we would prefer to keep Saturday service and keep post offices open in small, remote communities. But all things are not equal, in particular the Postal Service's balance sheets, which show an expected loss of $14 billion this year.

Halfway measures that allow politicians to send out self-congratulatory press releases won't close that gap. It's time to take a hard-eyed look at what needs to be done to preserve the service and then take the steps necessary to accomplish that.