POSTAL SERVICE DRAWS FIRE FOR COSTLY CONFERENCES

POSTAL SERVICE DRAWS FIRE FOR COSTLY CONFERENCES

The U.S. Postal Service, which recently announced plans to charge 30 cents for a stamp because it is losing money, spent as much as $10 million on conferences last year, including $100-a-person meals and a $12,000 reception, a government study reported.

According to the General Accounting Office, the federal agency Congress calls upon to investigate spending practices of other agencies, the conferences were held at plush resorts in Hawaii, Arizona and Florida - usually during winter months."At a time when the Postal Service is crying about its fiscal crisis and threatening to reduce service unless it can raise postage rates, it's nothing short of an outrage to find it has been spending its money this way," said Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark.

The GAO study indicated that the Postal Service spent from $6.2 million to $10 million on conferences last year. For the five specific conferences that Sen. Pryor asked the accounting office to investigate, a combined $450,930 was spent.

"There must be more cost-efficient ways for postal officials to meet than to fly to Florida or Hawaii - although those alternatives certainly might not be as pleasant," Sen. Pryor said.

The conferences gathered postal service executives from different parts of the country to review problems and future plans for the organization, which is projected to lose $1.6 billion this year.

On March 5, the postal service's board of governor's approved a 19 percent rate increase, including a five-cent increase in the cost of a first-class stamp, that will take effect early next year.

At one conference - a three-day January sojourn at the plush Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. - the Postal Service picked up a $12,718 beverage tab run up by about 200 executives from its western region.

At the same conference, officials dined on $99 dinners, all courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service.

"Some meal costs appear high," said Postmaster General Anthony Frank, in a written response to the GAO report. "I have instructed the appropriate officers in headquarters to review existing guidelines concerning meetings and conferences . . . to ensure that such expenses are kept to an absolute minimum."

The Postal Service, like other federal agencies, is supposed to limit daily food allowances at conferences and on business trips to $33 a person. At Scottsdale, daily costs for food and drink averaged between $109 and $137 per executive, the GAO said.

In addition to the Scottsdale conference, the GAO also investigated meetings in Florida, Hawaii, Colorado and California.

For the meeting in Hawaii, the Postal Service flew 24 of the 25 participants from the mainland to the island of Maui, where executives dined on $58 dinners and attended a luau.

In Naples, Fla., 87 Postal Service employees spent nearly $5,500 on rental cars during the three-day conference.

Participants, however, "always spent more than eight hours a day in these meetings," Mr. Frank said.

But Sen. Pryor, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on Federal Services, Post Office and Civil Service, believes the costly conferences are merely part of a larger problem.

"I have long felt that the Postal Service has brought much of its fiscal problems upon itself," Sen. Pryor said. "This report would seem to confirm that."