Tuesday, March 30, 1999

Mail meters take licking

Cost complaint raised

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Many small-business owners are not scrambling to find electronic postage meters to meet a Wednesday deadline as much as they are steaming about the rule itself.

        Businesses in Greater Cincinnati and the rest of the nation have until Wednesday to mothball mechanical meters and rent or lease electronic postage systems from one of a handful of suppliers.

        Federal law prohibits companies from using mechanical meters after Wednesday. “Everybody is bent out of shape, but it's not us doing it. It's the postal service. We blame it on the postal service,” said Chris Henkel, account representative for IKON Office Solutions, a distributor of office equipment and technology, including mail meters. “Everybody knows the bureaucracy of that mess.”

        The new regulation is making plenty of business owners irate. At radio station WMOH-AM, billed as the “Talk of Butler County,” station management expects the mail bill of about $23 per month to balloon to $42 per month once a new machine is in use.

        “We have an old machine — had it since the 1970s — and since I'm the only one who ever worked it, it's in very good condition. Not a thing wrong with it,” said Anneliese Less, business manager. “This change is costing us money, and it was dictated to us.”

        The order was issued in May 1996 by the U.S. Postal Service to curtail fraud, said Nicholas Stankosky, program manager of metering technology management based in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Postal Service. “When one of our engineers added $100,000 (in paid postage)to a mechanical machine in less than one minute, it told us real quickly that something needed to be done,” Mr. Stankosky said.

        Estimated annual losses from mail fraud are $100 million, he said. He did not know whether the federal government has prosecuted or convicted any business owners for mail fraud. He said about 500 cases are being investigated nationwide.

        A representative of Pitney Bowes Inc., one of the world's largest suppliers of mailing and other office equipment, said most businesses will not feel any impact from the new regulations. “In actuality, only about 15 percent of all businesses in U.S. have postage meters. Proportionately, it is impacting larger businesses by and large,” said Sheryl Battles, executive director of internal affairs for Pitney Bowes Inc.

        If small business owners cannot change to electronic meters by the midnight deadline on Wednesday, the postal service will offer a one-time- only mail refill up to $300 for users of mechanical units. Customers must have a copy of a lease agreement for a new meter to get the extension.

        The electronic meters allow businesses to acquire postage through a modem by calling a toll-free telephone number. Officials said high-technology meters allow business owners to avoid waiting in line at a post office to refill registers on mechanical meters. The electronic equipment does not need a dedicated telephone line to refill.

        The new meters appeal to Michael Maul, owner of Wordsworth & Associates, a marketing and public relations company based in Fairfax. In the past, whenever an employee had to make a trip to the post office, inevitably it meant he could not be tending to more urgent concerns, Mr. Maul said.

        “And that trip always came at the worst possible time,” he said. The new electronic meter, which will probably increase Wordsworth's mail costs by 20 percent, will also keep track of postage on a client-by-client basis, Mr. Maul said.

        George Quigley, president of Camargo Publications Inc., estimated a 20 percent annual increase in mailing costs from having to rent his mail meter equipment. The family-owned company, based in Sharonville and in business in Greater Cincinnati for 30 years, publishes and manages publications in the medical, legal and fine arts fields.

        The postal service projects that about 77,000 businesses still need to convert to the digital meters. Mr. Quigley agrees with Mr. Maul and sees at least one benefit to the new equipment.

        “No employee has to stand in line to wait to reset the meter, and that is a godsend,” Mr. Quigley said. “Not that the post office employees aren't nice people — but who wants to go to the post office to stand in line?”

        There is one other alternative: stamps. Not likely, Mr. Quigley replied. “You don't see anybody using stamps anymore,” he said.


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