Postal officials have decided to shift all North Bay mail processing from a Petaluma facility to one in Oakland, a cost-cutting move that will eliminate 228 jobs and slow the delivery of first-class mail.

The plan to move mail processing operations from the Petaluma facility on North McDowell Boulevard is part of a consolidation plan involving seven other facilities in California and 223 nationwide, almost half of the Postal Service's plants.

Postal officials said the consolidations will not occur before May 15 but are necessary if the Postal Service is to remain viable.

Meanwhile, California election officials urged the Postal Service to delay any shutdowns until after the November elections in which millions of people will vote by mail.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen said it could undermine the timely delivery of election materials in the middle of a presidential year.

"If implemented in the peak of the four-year election cycle, such major reductions in mail service could potentially disenfranchise millions of people who vote by mail," Bowen wrote in a letter to the postmaster general.

James Wigdel, a Postal Service spokesman, said Friday that postal officials will be meeting soon with state election officials.

"Nationwide we're working with all local election officials to ensure a smooth election, not only this year, but in years to come, even with the changes taking place in mail processing," he said.

But election officials weren't the only ones concerned about the changes. Postal worker union representatives say the moves are shortsighted. They argue there are other ways to address the continual deficits at the post office projected at $15 billion to $18 billion this budget year.

Raising the price of stamps and not requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund employee pensions can make the organization self-sufficient, said Valerie Schropp, president of the local American Postal Workers Union.

The consolidation means "you will see a letter take two to three days to go across town, because it has to go to Oakland," she said.

"In this day and age, businesses don't stay around with that attitude. They need better service than what's offered," she said.

Nationally, the postal workers' union was urging its members to reach out to lawmakers to correct the underlying cause of the Postal Service financial crisis "without slashing service, eliminating jobs and destroying the network of plants and post offices that keeps the mail moving."

The Postal Service, which has been awash in red ink, wants to reduce its operating costs by $20 billion by 2015 and return to profitability.

The consolidation plan will result in a $2.1 billion annual savings, Wigdel said. The changes in Petaluma will trim about $2.5 million a year.

Since 2006, first-class mail volume has plunged by 25 percent. The decline in mail volume has resulted in excess capacity within the network, creating opportunity for consolidation, according to postal officials.

"With reduced volume, we don't need as large a processing network. That's one of the main reasons we're going though this," Wigdel said.

He said the consolidations will result in the elimination of 35,000 positions in a workforce that now totals about 560,000 employees.

Many of the 35,000 jobs are expected to be trimmed through attrition and early retirement. Union contracts specify no layoffs, he said, and affected employees will be "repositioned" in other jobs.

In the case of Petaluma, the Postal Service is proposing to end processing of mail at the facility on North McDowell, but leave it open for customer retail and business mail services.

The mail annex at Southpoint Boulevard would be closed entirely.

Workers at both facilities process mail for Marin, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties.

With the processing shifted to Oakland, postal officials acknowledge that first-class mail standards will have to be changed. Instead of being delivered overnight, first-class mail will take two to three days, Wigdel said.

But he said other types of mail will not be affected, including priority, express and parcel service.

Widgel said many consumers don't realize now that first-class mail is delivered overnight, "unless they have to get something there" right away.

"There will be an adjustment for our customers — a necessary one to sustain the post office for the long term," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.