LONG BEACH — A huge white patch covers a crack slashing vertically across the front of the North Long Beach Post Office. The roof leaks and ceiling tiles have pulled loose.
Inside, elbow room is cramped as postal carriers sort mail for their daily rounds. Growth, both in the number of residents and the amount of mail they receive, has forced the U.S. Postal Service to assign new mail carriers to the already tight quarters.
"There's no place to put all this stuff and it ends up in front of the door," said Mike Tovar, 34, a mail carrier for four years, as he surveyed the assortment of carts and parcels during the morning rush.
The Postal Service had planned to build a new station in the coming year to replace the 31-year-old facility on Market Street and provide space for carriers out of the cramped Bixby Knolls station.
But federal budget cutbacks have caused those plans to be shelved until at least 1990 as the Postal Service is forced to pare $430 million from its national operating budget and $1.7 billion in capital construction and purchasing.
Downey Station Deferred
In Long Beach and the Southeast, the cutbacks will defer construction of not only a new North Long Beach station, but also for a new South Downey station. Improvement projects for existing stations will be delayed in Bell, Compton, Downey, Huntington Park, La Habra, Lynwood, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, South Gate and Whittier.
"It's frustrating because we're trying to present a positive image and there's no way to repair the facilities and bring them up to date," said Debra Townsend, manager of support services in the Long Beach Division, which includes much of the Southeast.
Besides construction cutbacks, post offices have reduced their window hours starting this week. Although the changes vary from station to station, most will open later or close for an hour or two in the middle of the day, said Kay A. Behnke, a Postal Service spokeswoman. Mail is no longer collected from mail boxes on Sundays.
William J. Good, general manager and postmaster of the Long Beach Division, said the cuts will hamper efforts to improve service.
"When I think of the Postal Service, I think of someone being able to drop their most precious thoughts in an envelope . . . and people just expect it to be delivered, and it is," Good said. "Now, because of the cuts, we're going to be impacted and we're not going to be able to provide the kind of service we think we can."
Good said that both the North Long Beach and Bixby Knolls stations are "inadequate for the amount of mail we process."
A possible site had been found for the new station, which is expected to cost about $7 million, but the chance to buy the site may be lost because of the cutbacks, Townsend said.
Similarly, postal officials have temporarily shelved plans to build a new South Downey station at Imperial Highway and Smallwood Avenue that will cost an estimated $2 million. The post office already owns the land.
Post offices that have become too small lead to inefficiencies, postal officials say.
"We're handling this mail more than is necessary," said Estella Whiting, manager of the North Long Beach station. Because of the space crunch, a carrier may have to push around one cart to get to another or move mail around an area twice when it could have been moved just once, she said.
Average Daily Load
Rob Lampert, a supervisor at the station, said that each carrier has an average load of bundled mail in trays equal to 8 to 10 feet long that must be sorted and delivered to more than 800 stops a day, six days a week. With that much mail, carriers cannot waste time.
The number of routes has increased from 43 to 50 in the past four years, letter carrier Tovar said. About 75 carriers are assigned to the station.
Behnke said that the entire Long Beach Division--which has administrative jurisdiction stretching along the coast from Topanga Beach to Long Beach and spreading inland through the Southeast area in kind of a U-shape--had a capital budget of $2.2 million for this fiscal year. That budget is now frozen.
In addition, the division also had an expense budget of $2.6 million, but about $1 million had to be spent to repair damage resulting from the Oct. 1 earthquake. The remainder, she said, can only be spent "for the highest priority project related to security, safety or the movement and distribution of mail."
Here is a roundup of projects that Behnke said had been planned for the Southeast:
* Bell--About $50,000 in repair and renovation projects at the main office, Cudahy and Maywood stations were put on hold. Most of the $750,000 in improvements at the Bell bulk mail facility on Bandini Boulevard also were delayed.
* Compton--All of the $100,000 in planned improvements at the main office, Hub City and Gateway stations will be deferred, except for some roof repair.
* Downey--About $180,000 in counter construction, air-conditioning improvements and floor tile replacement in the main office will be deferred.