As part of its massive cost-cutting efforts designed to reduce a $40 billion annual budget gap, the U.S. Postal Service is completing service cutbacks at seven rural outposts in Berkshire County.

The plan, first announced in late 2012, has involved extensive community surveys and meetings in the towns affected, said Christine Dugas, the Postal Service spokeswoman for most of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

"Typically in the Northeast, the choice is a reduction in hours," she told The Eagle on Thursday. Residents in the small communities are given a range of cost-cutting options on the surveys, including a shutdown of the rural facility with services relocated to a larger post office, which could be miles away, or a relocation of post office boxes and other basic retail services to a nearby store or library.

Given the alternatives, Dugas said, nearly all residents favor keeping retail and counter services at their local office open even with reduced hours, especially with 24 hour access to P.O. boxes.

In Berkshire County, postal facilities affected by the current wave of cutbacks, some already in effect and others to come within the next month or two, are in Sandisfield; Southfield and Mill River, two of the five villages in the sprawling town of New Marlborough; South Lee; Lenox Dale; Glendale, a village in Stockbridge; and Ashley Falls, a small community bordering Connecticut that's part of Sheffield.

In Southfield, where residents were briefed on the Postal Service's plans during a meeting Friday at the New Marlborough Town Hall, a cutback from eight to six hours a day is anticipated, with the exact hours of operation to be determined, Dugas said.

The same curtailment is being considered in Sandisfield following a community meeting on July 2, she added. A final decision is due within 30 days.

Reductions already are in effect at the post offices in South Lee, Ashley Falls, Glendale, Lenox Dale and Mill River.

In Massachusetts, 49 post offices have been or will be affected by various service cuts; nationally, the total is about 13,000, with 9,500 facilities already seeing reduced hours.

When the cuts were announced in 2012, the Postal Service's goal was to save $2 billion a year, combined with an end to Saturday delivery. But Congress, which supervises the independent federal agency, declined to approve the demise of Saturday mail.

In its 2013 annual report to Congress, the agency reported $39.8 billion in red ink, widening the budget gap from $34.8 billion in 2012; $18.9 billion in 2011 and $5.4 billion in 2009.

The U.S. Postal Service is self-funded and receives no taxpayer support. It handles about 40 percent of global mail volume, has about 500,000 employees, 31,100 retail offices and more than 200,000 vehicles. It delivers to about 153 million mailboxes, six days a week.

With the dramatic growth of Internet-based mail and other digital communications, as well as the expansion of private delivery services, overall mail volume declined by 7 percent over the three-year period beginning Oct. 1, 2010. Since mail volume peaked in 2006, the total decline has been more than 25 percent.

The Postal Service also cites the financial burden of a 2006 law requiring it to "pre-fund" the health care costs of future retirees to the tune of $5.5 billion a year, the only federal agency or department obligated to do so.

The agency is tapped out, with $113 billion in total current and future liabilities, including payments to retirees and workers compensation. Its current assets total only $23 billion.

Reduction in hours at small post offices usually involve a cutback in staff, especially at locations with their own postmasters. Supervisors at the nearest larger facility normally take over responsibility for running the village outposts.

Even before the current program of cutbacks began, the village of East Otis led the way with a reduction that took effect in February 2013, to six hours a day, from 8 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m.

Next year, the Postal Service plans to consolidate up 82 of its mail-processing facilities nationwide -- including several in northern Connecticut and central Massachusetts -- affecting about 15,000 employees and saving a projected $3.5 billion by 2020. According to a June 30 agency announcement, the impact on first-class mail delivery schedules should be minimal.

"The situation now is fairly precarious," the agency's chief financial officer, Joseph Corbett, told the Wall Street Journal recently. "When you have roughly $4 billion of cash, and over $100 billion in liabilities, it doesn't take a genius to figure out we're in a financial crisis."

Postal Service cutbacks ...

The following rural post offices in Berkshire County have recently implemented or are facing reduced hours:

Ashley Falls: 6 hours TBA weekdays; TBA Saturdays

Glendale: 8-11 weekdays; 9-12 Saturdays

Lenox Dale: 9:15-12:15, 2-5 weekdays; 9-11:30 Saturdays

Mill River: 11:30-3:30 weekdays; 9-11:30 Saturdays

Sandisfield: 6 hours TBA weekdays; TBA Saturdays

Southfield: 6 hours TBA 8 weekdays (closed Saturdays)

South Lee: 8:15-12:15 weekdays; 8:30-11:30 Saturdays

Sources:usps.com; Postal Service officials

To contact Clarence Fanto:
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