Tucson wasn't happy last night about a proposal to close its mail-processing center, if a spirited crowd of more than 500 was any indication.

By a show of hands, nearly every person who piled into downtown's Leo Rich Theatre was opposed to a plan by the U.S. Postal Service to shave $14 million off its bottom line by closing the Cherrybell Stravenue processing station and trucking Tucson's mail up to Phoenix for processing.

Although the retail side would remain open, the proposal would mean no more overnight service in Tucson. Instead, mail service would meet a two- to three-day standard.

While postal representative Brian McCoy said what most of us commonly call "junk mail" is holding steady, and parcel delivery remains strong, the slump in first-class mail is part of the reason the Postal Service faces an expected loss of $3 billion in operating revenue this year. Mail volume has dropped 20 percent since 2007, according to postal statistics.

While concerns were expressed about delays in the receipt of medications, public benefit checks and vote-by-mail ballots, the potential delay was particularly upsetting to Matthew Laos, a former captain in the Army Reserve, who oversaw postal operations when he was deployed to Iraq. He said with mail pivotal to soldiers on the battlefield, the Postal Service should keep in mind this area is home to several military installations, including Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Fort Huachuca. "When you think about Tucson, think about Iraq," he said.

There are implications beyond the delivery delay.

Although the post office has indicated the closure would spell a net loss of 147 jobs, the direct impact on Tucson is bigger than that, with a loss of 288 jobs. While some of those jobs would be absorbed through attrition or transfers to Phoenix, former Tucson postmaster Alvaro Alvarez pointed out that creating jobs in Phoenix does nothing to stabilize the local economy.

There also would be no more Tucson postmarks without a special trip to a local post office. Postal worker Michele Launi argued, to hoots from the crowd, that Old Tucson Studios shouldn't have a Phoenix postmark - nor should the University of Arizona.

And with a local mail processing discount going away, many nonprofits and businesses that rely on that lower rate for their bulk mailings will see higher costs. Albert Elias, who has operated Old Pueblo Printers for 47 years, said local printers could be affected if businesses send their print work to Phoenix so they can mail it from there to get the local discount.

McCoy, who moderated the event, predicted at the start of the two-hour hearing that he wouldn't be a popular guy. He was right.

The skeptical crowd catcalled when he assured them that Phoenix would be treated just like Tucson, and would also lose overnight delivery.

They didn't like it when he shut the hearing off after two hours with more than a dozen speakers still in line - especially after former mayoral candidate Rick Grinnell received confirmation from the interim director of the Tucson Convention Center that the Leo Rich Theatre was booked until midnight.

And they hissed when McCoy said he didn't like to be the harbinger of bad news.

But, McCoy said, while he understands the difficulties the proposal could cause, "We are tasked with surviving." If the Postal Service, which is supported through revenues and not taxpayer dollars, doesn't act soon, he warned, "at one point we'll have to put an out-of-order sign on our front door."

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva argued there are other solutions that need to be considered first.

He said Congress could pass a number of measures to help, including no longer forcing the service to prepay billions for health benefits. The service could also be allowed to undertake more competitive practices, he said.

Ron Barber, district manager for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, received raucous applause for suggesting that had the hearing not been held in the middle of a holiday week in a small venue, thousands would have attended.

There was some limited time for questions, such as how the service could save $800,000 a year in transportation costs driving mail up to Phoenix and back down again. Senior plant manager Clyde Jones said while transportation exists between the two cities now, the Postal Service would halt transportation coming into Tucson from Denver, Dallas and California.

Although Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik suggested closing the Phoenix processing plant instead, McCoy said this plan was proposed because Phoenix has enough capacity already to handle the Tucson mail. The reverse isn't true.

How to comment

There are two more weeks remaining in the comment period. Comments may be submitted in writing to:

USPS Manager, Consumer and Industry Contact

P.O. Box 21628

Phoenix AZ 85036-1628

As is perhaps appropriate for the Postal Service, email comments are not being accepted. And they must be postmarked (which, at least for now, still reflects Tucson) no later than Jan. 12.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.