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Mail service -- under heavy demands

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GETTING the mails through in the United States has always been a genuine challenge for the US Postal Service and its many predecessor agencies. That a letter can be mailed from a major city on the East Coast or the West Coast and several days later arrive at the door of some family at the opposite end of the nation -- or a small, semirural community in the Middle West or elsewhere -- is a remarkable achievement. Granted, many Americans are often annoyed that delivery between key points can be so chronically slow.

Still, we suspect that much of the criticism so often heard about the post office is born not so much of ill will toward the agency as the feeling of appreciation that most Americans hold for the system -- a recognition that in a transcontinental democracy the size of the United States, only the very best postal system will suffice.

In this regard, the concern now being heard about a possible new rate increase as early as next year ought not be taken lightly.

Such an increase would come on top of the most recent one, including the new 22-cent stamp for first-class mail that went into effect this year. The postal system should have the funds it needs. But before any additional hike is proposed, the public could be expected to ask the Postal Service to ensure that the system is being run as economically as possible.

The postal system is heading toward what could be a whopping $500 million deficit for the fiscal year ending this September.

The deficit would follow three successive years of profits for the service, as well as the added revenues now coming in under the new rate increase.

The chief economic problem for the system is labor costs -- which account for more than 80 percent of the agency's entire $26 billion budget.

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