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POSTAL SERVICE MAY TAKE YEAR TO GET ON TRACK

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The U.S. Postal Service may need a year to fully recover from delivery problems that have generated complaints since last winter, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon says.

At a contentious hearing Thursday, Runyon told a congressional subcommittee, "We are moving in the right direction across the country."Pressed to say when delivery problems would be solved, he answered, "It won't be where we want it to be in six months. But I think it will be in about a year."

Runyon said intensive efforts would bring faster results in the Washington area, which recently tied with New York for slowest mail delivery in the nation in a Postal Service survey.

Washington will see "continuous improvement over the next few weeks and months," Runyon said. Postal officials said 75 new mail carriers would be hired in Washington to alleviate a staff shortage that contributed to huge backlogs of mail.

House Post Office Committee members at the hearing repeatedly asked how things had gotten so bad.

They cited Postal Service studies that found the nation's delivery last winter was the slowest since quarterly surveys began in 1990.

In the Washington area, postal inspectors found millions of pieces of mail backlogged at two regional post offices in May. The same inspection found a backlog of letters addressed to the government, some dating from February, languishing at Washington's main post office.

"The problem is massive. I think to some degree the scope of it is unprecedented," said Rep. Frank McCloskey, D-Ind. "Whatever is happening, there is no excuse for it."

Runyon blamed the nation's delivery problems on the bureaucratic culture of the Postal Service and workers' resistance to his attempts to modernize the system since taking office two years ago.

"It's going to take us about five years to change the culture of the Postal Service," Runyon said.

Several committee members prodded Runyon for a more concrete explanation of what went wrong.

"We have been hearing complaints from all over the country that the service is bad and getting worse," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y. "What has happened to make it worse?" he asked.

Runyon repeated that postal workers and managers were resisting change. A frustrated Ackerman said he would give up the line of questioning as futile.

Ackerman suggested the root of the problem was the loss of too many experienced workers when the Postal Service offered early retirement incentives in 1992. The buyouts led "to the state of chaos that exists today," Ackerman said.

But Runyon defended his buyout plan. He insisted the problems go deeper, to an ingrained Postal Service culture.