National lawmakers have joined Minnesota mayors in the fight to keep mail processing centers in four outstate cities from closing.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Postal Service announced a plan to shutter dozens of mail processing centers across the county — including those in Duluth, Bemidji, Mankato and Waite Park near St. Cloud. The consolidations, set to start in January, would save $750 million a year, the Postal Service says.

But the plan is unpopular with local unions and elected officials, who argue that shifting the work to Twin Cities centers will slow service to outstate cities and rural areas, hurting businesses and residents who rely on timely mail delivery.

“The Bemidji community is universally opposed to the move,” Mayor Rita Albrecht said. “Rural areas already have numerous challenges to reaching our goals of being vibrant, successful communities.

“This action by the USPS will pre­sent another hurdle for the region.”

Last week, 50 U.S. senators, including Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, signed a letter asking a Senate committee to help prevent the Postal Service from closing or consolidating any mail processing centers for at least a year. A similar letter is circulating among U.S. representatives.

As the Postal Service consolidated 141 processing centers in recent years, “service delivery has suffered,” the senators argue. “Slowing down mail delivery even further will hurt senior citizens on fixed incomes, small business and the entire economy.”

The Postal Service, which does not rely on taxpayer dollars, has been seeking out efficiencies to deal with declining mail volume, said spokeswoman Stacy St. John. The Postal Service reported in August that despite increases in revenue, the agency had a net loss of $2 billion in the quarter ending June 30, thanks largely to a congressional requirement that it pay more than $5 billion annually into a health care fund for future retirees.

The round of mail processing center closures are part of the same process that began in 2011, St. John said, so no additional public hearings were required. “Mail volume continues to decline … so the need [for consolidation] would be even more than it was in 2012 or 2013.”

Mail that is now being processed in Mankato, Waite Park and Bemidji will get sorted in Minneapolis. Duluth’s mail will head to Eagan, where a 2010 project added 600,000 square feet to the processing facility.

After the closures, the average time it takes a piece of first-class mail to reach its destination will rise from 2.14 days to 2.25, according to the Postal Service. “We have done 141 of these consolidations with minimal service impacts,” St. John said.

Slower delivery

But some postal workers say the closures will slow mail delivery significantly.

Right now, a letter sent from one International Falls resident to another goes to Bemidji, where it’s sorted and sent back to town. “They’ll still get their overnight delivery,” said James Walinski, president of the Bemidji Local 109 of the American Postal Workers Union.

But if the processing centers are closed, that letter would get sorted in the Twin Cities, he said, adding hours of driving time.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness questioned whether such trips to the Twin Cities are efficient.

“Having a mail processing plant in Duluth is critical to maintain quality service for all of Northeastern Minnesota,” he wrote on Facebook. “The Postal Service is doing a great disservice to rural America by consolidating into massive processing plants in major metro areas.”

When he entered politics, Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s father, a postal worker for 47 years, made him promise to do three things: Be honest. Work for the common people and the common good. “And third — don’t ever vote against the Postal Service,” Nolan said, laughing.

The Postal Service’s financial problems are not rooted in inefficient operations, he said by phone Friday. “It is a very, very efficient operation.” Instead, its balance sheet is being brought down by the requirement to pre-fund health care for future retirees, Nolan said. Because Congress has not passed a solution to that problem, the Postal Service has chosen to “close, consolidate services and lower the service and delivery standards,” he said.

It doesn’t make sense to close the Duluth processing center, which employs more than 70 people and sits within Nolan’s Eighth Congressional District. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” he said. “They have highly trained people running this thing.”

The Postal Service has pledged to make “every effort” to reassign processing center employees to other positions or facilities, according to a recent letter to customers. The last round of consolidations was done without layoffs, St. John said.

In Rochester, where the processing center closed in 2012, a dozen employees went to work in offices within 50 miles, a radius outlined in the union contract, said Richard Haefner, president of the Minnesota Postal Workers Union. A few voluntarily transferred farther away. Many left through an early retirement program, he said.

More complaints

The closure has clearly upset Rochester customers, Haefner said. Customers who were used to letters arriving quickly are now waiting days longer, he said. Businesses that used to “pay big bucks” for large post office boxes have been frustrated that they’re now filled later in the morning.

“It’s been really terrible for service,” Haefner said. “We have customers coming to the window complaining all the time.”

In a letter to Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe, Franken said he’s heard similar criticism from folks in Rochester. Because of the closure, he wrote, a letter sent from one Rochester address to another “can take up to eleven days to get back down to Rochester.”

Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede said he’s heard no complaints about worsened service.

But he questions how effective it’s been to shift the processing from smaller centers, considering the cost of a major expansion to the processing facility in Eagan.

“Do we really reduce the working staff that much? And how much does it cost to haul all of this back and forth?” Brede said. “To me, I don’t know if the Postal Service is saving any money when it gets right down to it.”