Baptist papers, church mailouts confronting high postal rate hike

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--A sharp increase in nonprofit postal rates has prompted concerns among Baptist newspaper editors and others who monitor the United States Postal Service.

The USPS's across-the-board rate increase took effect Jan. 10. Most visibly, first-class stamps rose from 32 cents to 33 cents, a 3.1 percent increase.

But the cost of mailing nonprofit periodicals -- such as Baptist state newspapers -- rose 8 to 12 percent, according to Bob Terry, a member of the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee and editor of The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

MTAC includes commercial and nonprofit mailers who meet quarterly with the USPS senior management to discuss postal concerns.

"Over a year ago, the Postal Service said nonprofit costs should go up 3.6 percent," said Terry, who represents the Religious Press Coalition, which includes the Association of State Baptist Papers. "That's what the Postal Service asked for when it filed a general rate case to raise all postal rates."

But when the USPS's request came before the independent Postal Rate Commission, the PRC instead gave the USPS the 8 to 12 percent increase -- the exact percentage depending on the mail's weight, method of sortation and destination.

"Those of us on the nonprofit side find this quite unusual," Terry said. "The Postal Service says a piece of identical weight, size and preparation costs them more from a nonprofit mailer than if it's a commercial piece.

"Some of us don't understand why two identical pieces would cost the Postal Service more to handle from a nonprofit mailer than from a commercial mailer."

Likewise, in Standard "A" mail, many churches will experience sharp increases, Terry noted.

"For many church mailouts, such as weekly bulletins, the rate has increased an average of 9.6 percent for nonprofits, compared to 1.7 percent for a commercial piece," Terry said.

So why the sharp increases for churches and other nonprofit mailers? The fault, Terry believes, lies in the research methodology used to help justify new postal rates.

"In gathering the data for this rate case, the Postal Service used a technique they call sampling," Terry explained. "At certain times, they would blow a whistle and ask their employees, 'What are you working on now?'"

During the sampling period, the USPS found an increased percentage of its employees working on nonprofit mail -- a fact used to justify the rate increase, Terry said.

But the sampling technique was unfair, Terry stated, because it was performed during a period when the USPS was in the midst of changing the rules for nonprofits, whose mail took more time to process as mailers learned new postal regulations.

"Many in the nonprofit community, including myself, believe the sampling skewed the results," Terry said. "The legitimacy of our argument was acknowledged by the Postal Rate Commission.

"Recently, the new Postmaster General William Henderson -- in his first major speech -- said you can't rely on the sampling system to know where your costs are growing. That's exactly what some of us said when the rate case was first filed and we learned their data came from sampling."

Marv Knox, president of the Association of State Baptist Papers, said the sharp rate increases come on the heels of record surpluses at the USPS.

"The one thing that is particularly vexing is that the Postal Service is showing record revenues," said Knox, editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas. "But they're continuing to pass along cost increases to Baptist state papers and other charitable nonprofit groups that contribute to the well-being of the country."

Terry noted the financial record of the USPS is likewise impressive even further back than a year.

"The Postal Service has made more than $5 billion in profits in the past four years," Terry said. "This rate increase is coming on the heels of a year in which the Postal Service made hundreds of millions of dollar in profits."

In an Internet news release, the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers reported on Postmaster Henderson's remarks to a Senate subcommittee where he estimated an operating surplus of $500-$600 million for fiscal year 1998.

"Not mentioned in the Senate testimony was any explanation why, in the face of such favorable financial and growth trends, the USPS was imposing new postal rate increases on postal customers," according to the release, which was posted at www.nonprofitmailers.org.

Last July, the alliance filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., challenging the rate increase, which was announced in 1998.

"Why an appeal?" an alliance news release asked. "Because the (USPS) will earn billions of dollars of illegal monopoly profits unless the court acts. ... The facts are simple: The USPS is a monopoly. ... To protect mailers and consumers, the law forbids the USPS from exploiting its monopoly power to earn excess profits.

"Postal rates must be set so that the USPS's total expected revenues equal, as nearly as possible, the total expected costs that it would incur if managed honestly and efficiently."

The court has scheduled oral arguments in the case for April, "but the new rates will have been in effect a few months by then," the alliance noted.

The change in rates at the USPS also reflects a change in attitude, Knox suggested.

"It's been a philosophical change ... a turning in the way the Postal Service sees its clients nationwide," Knox said. "We're seen not so much as partners aiding ministries and services the government wasn't funding. ... We have become a cost center and a new way of generating new revenue."

Some state Baptist newspapers may find it necessary to raise advertising and subscription rates, Knox noted.

"For nearly all of us, postage, printing and paper are tremendous parts of our budget," Knox said. "Any impact on any one of those three has a significant impact.

"If your costs go up and if you're already at the point where you're spending everything you receive, some state papers are going to have to raise their rates because you have to pay the post office."

Some papers may opt to cut costs by reducing the number of issues each year, but for some smaller state papers this isn't an option, Knox said, since they're already either monthly or twice-monthly.

Terry suggested state Baptist newspapers and churches can partner together through the use of local church editions, which are available from many state papers.

In a local church edition, a church prepares its newsletter as a newspaper-size page, which the state paper publishes in place of one of its regular pages containing "soft" features and other optional items.

A church's local edition is mailed exclusively to a church's members who, in effect, receive in one piece both their church newsletter and the Baptist state paper.

"Most nonprofit postage is a per-piece charge," Terry observed. "If instead of both The Alabama Baptist and the church taking a per-piece hit, we can pay that per-piece charge one time and partner together to meet the needs of the church. Most other state Baptist papers can do the same for their churches too."

The cost savings to such an arrangement can be significant, Terry added.

"Any church that has a mailout bulletin at least twice a month can pay for the price of the subscription to the state paper for the local church edition," Terry said. "They'll spend no more money than they're spending on the church mailout.

"If a church is mailing a weekly bulletin, we can save them money -- no matter how many they're mailing."

Local church editions can also benefit smaller churches, which do not have the 200 subscribers needed to qualify for nonprofit rates. "In Alabama, we have one church that publishes a local church edition for 35 subscribers," Terry said.

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