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NEW CASTLE -- Delaware politicians proposed a plan on Thursday night that they hope will spare the state's only mail-processing facility and save hundreds of local jobs.

At a public meeting at the New Castle School, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., asked regional U.S. Postal Service officials to consider keeping the Hares Corner plant open and diverting mail there from the processing plant in Easton, Md., -- also slated for closure -- as well as mail from Cecil County. Md., ZIP codes and Pennsylvania communities bordering the First State.

Mail at the Easton plant comes from all over the Eastern Shore of Maryland and will soon be fed into an already overworked Baltimore facility, Carper said. Send it to Delaware instead, he suggested.

"We just need to use some common sense," said Carper, who chairs the Senate subcommittee overseeing the Postal Service. "There's too many questions here that need to be answered, and too many options here that need to be considered."

Under the Postal Service's consolidation plan, all of Delaware's mail would be processed at a center in Bellmawr, N.J. -- instead of the Hares Corner facility -- as part of a broader effort to slash spending and improve efficiencies nationwide. The Postal Service, among other issues, is trying to make up for a severe drop in mail volume since 2006 as consumers increasingly shift their communication to email and other electronic media.

"We're trying to become a leaner, more efficient operation. That's what this is all about," said Tom Kelley, acting district manager for the Postal Service.

Carper emphasized that many financial institutions and other businesses rely on the processing center, noting the loss would make it harder for Delaware to compete with other states to attract new jobs and retain existing positions.

Besides Delaware, Vermont is the only other state at risk of losing its only mail-processing plant under the Postal Service's plan to consolidate its 500 centers to fewer than 200 and extend first-class mail delivery from one day to two.

"We are not going to give up. We will take this to the highest level," said Carper, to the cheers of hundreds in the audience.

The Postal Service has said closing the Hares Corner center would save an estimated $19.7 million a year in employee, transportation and maintenance expenses but also cost 205 local jobs, according to excerpts of an agency feasibility study published this month.

Carper and other Delaware legislators want to know the criteria on which the agency is evaluating the center and the data used by Postal Service officials in their analysis, but the Postal Service has refused to provide that information or publish its study.

"I can't stand before you tonight and tell you I understand what the Postal Service study means because I haven't seen it," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told the crowd. "Before I ask anyone to schlep 35 miles up the highway, I've gotta see the math."

A Postal Service spokesman said it's agency policy not to release the study because a final decision has not been made.

"We only provide a snapshot of what the study has shown to this point," said Ray Daiutolo Sr., a regional spokesman for the agency. "The study is ongoing and subject to change."

A final decision on Hares Corner will be made by top officials at the Postal Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., some time in mid- to late-February after the public-comment period closes Feb. 3, Daiutolo said. Consolidation would not occur until after May 15.

The Hares Corner facility currently employs 468 people, some of whom could be re-assigned to jobs elsewhere but not necessarily the same positions, officials said Thursday. An estimated total of 194 workers and 11 management positions would be lost, according to the agency.

Union representatives said they've been told Hares Corner would continue to employ 38 workers to maintain bulk-mail and maintenance operations and retail store services. The agency could later decide to relocate those operations to a smaller facility nearby, Daiutolo said.

But employees in the audience and several legislators worried how long those jobs would stay in the area.

Hares Corner clerk Leon Tucker, who's worked for the Postal Service for 30 years, said it doesn't make sense to keep a 190,000 square-foot building if you don't have the equipment and people to fill it. What if the agency returns next for more jobs? he said.

"This new idea would save jobs and keep the mail here," Tucker said. "It's a really good alternative."

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