Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sending mail to troops gets more costly

By Karen Jowers - Staff writer

The cost of postage stamps may have increased by two cents, or 5 percent, but rates for packages have gone up a lot more in some cases, say those who support the troops.

Before postal rates increased May 14, Mary Kay Salomone spent $10 to send a 25-pound box to Iraq or Afghanistan. Now, it’s $13.90, said the founder of Operation Support Our Troops in North Kingstown, R.I.

“That’s a 39 percent increase. This country is battle-weary. Donations are falling off. I’m not getting 39 percent more in donations,” she said.

For every 100 packages she sends, she’s paying $1,390 — $390 more than before.

“The people this is affecting the most are military families with deployed service members and nonprofits that are sending to deployed service members. I expected a 10 percent to 15 percent rate increase. How much more can you do to the military families?” said Salomone, an Army mother and wife of a retired soldier.

She wants the U.S. Postal Service or Congress to give a break to those mailing support packages to the troops.

“Congress should allow a 25 percent discount to those mailing to APO and FPO addresses of troops in harm’s way, even if it’s just a temporary discount,” she said. “Some of our troops with the Iraqi forces are still asking for basic things like toilet paper, shampoo, hand sanitizer and neck coolers. We throw in things to make their lives easier, like a clean towel.”

Across the board, the average increase in postal rates was about 13 percent, said Jimmy Cochrane, manager of package services for the U.S. Postal Service.

“We never like doing double-digit increases. But escalating fuel costs are the biggest driver — our cost to move the product around the country,” he said.

It is unclear whether the increase in rates has affected the number of packages being sent. Cochrane said business has been flat in terms of package volume, but “there’s a general flatness in the shipping market,” largely because of a slowdown in the economy.

But he said there has been no decrease in military mail, from what they see.

Salomone said volunteers for her organization in San Francisco would now pay about $8 less to send a 25-pound box by parcel post — down to $27.11 from $35. Cost depends on where the package is coming from, where it’s being shipped and the size and shape of the box.

For cost reasons, the San Francisco contingent has been sending items to the troops in the Priority Mail flat-rate box, which now costs $8.95 to send whatever you can stuff in. The cost to mail a flat-rate box increased from $8.10.

Cochrane said the flat-rate box is popular for sending items to troops, and from what he sees during mail processing, “about every other box” going to the troops is flat-rate. He advises those mailing overseas to check out that money-saving option.

For Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, the increase means having to raise more money. Her group uses the flat-rate boxes. Assuming they send out 100,000 boxes — a low-end estimate, she said — that’s an extra $85,000.

Salomone said her group has had to make some tough decisions.

“We could send half as many boxes, or we could send smaller boxes with fewer items, which is not cost-effective,” she said. “So our focus is more on the troops in the rough parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are living with Iraqi and Afghani soldiers and getting showers every two to three weeks.”

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