The U.S. Postal Service is moving ahead with plans to shut down operations at its Petaluma processing facility, a cost-saving move that union officials and two North Bay congressmen are criticizing, citing impacts they say it could have on local postal workers and customers.

The Postal Service expects to cease operations early next year at the mail processing plant on North McDowell Boulevard and move them to another facility, likely in San Francisco, U.S. Postal Service spokesman James Wigdel said.

The move, which stands to affect more than 160 employees, is part of a second wave of consolidations nationwide aimed at trimming a total of about $1.6 billion from the federal agency's budget by next fall, Wigdel said.

Initially, the North McDowell facility was slated to close this year. But the Postal Service held off on closures after it consolidated 141 mail processing centers nationwide between 2012 and 2013. Wigdel said the agency wanted to closely monitor service changes before moving ahead with the second phase of consolidations, which includes about 80 more plants around the country.

Wigdel said there hasn't been much change in delivery times since the first consolidations. The average for First-Class mail remains at about 2 days, he said.

However, David Swaney, general president of the local American Postal Workers Union chapter, argued it will take even longer for residents to receive their mail if all operations are shifted outside of the North Bay area.

"That's not service," Swaney argued. "I should be able to mail to an aunt across town and get it there tomorrow if I mail it today."

Local mail was once sorted and processed at the North Bay Delivery Distribution Center on Southpoint Boulevard in Petaluma, which closed two years ago as part of the first phase of consolidations. Mail is now being handled about 50 miles away in San Francisco, Wigdel said. However, he said the mail is sent to the North Dowell site where workers, including the employees transferred from the Southpoint facility, prepare it for carriers to deliver.

The North McDowell site will remain open for retail- and business-mail services.

"We're still evaluating where we are going to go with this consolidation," Wigdel said. "If we move the remaining operations of the plant to San Francisco, it could affect service. But we just don't know to what extent at this point."

"We'll see where things land in 2015," he added.

Postal Service and union officials differ on how the move will impact employees.

There are 161 employees at the Petaluma facility, Wigdel said. They cannot be laid off under union contract; so they'll be offered different positions or transfers to other facilities, he added. He said the agency is looking for letter carriers, truck drivers and other support-staff positions.

But it remains unclear what positions the agency will offer the Petaluma workers and how far workers will need to travel, said Swaney, the union official. He said many workers cannot afford to drive to San Francisco or Oakland — the closest processing sites.

"Some of these people may be offered [mail] carrier jobs. But some physically cannot do that because of their age…," he said. "That's a concerning thing."

Congressmen Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, opposed the consolidations when they were first announced in 2011. This week, they made another plea to U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to keep the facilities open, calling out in particular the plans to shutter the Petaluma facility and a processing center in Eureka.

In a letter to Donahoe, the pair called the consolidations "misguided" and argued they would hurt seniors, veterans and residents who live in rural communities "who rely on timely delivery of prescriptions and other postal services."

They also will mean job losses for dozens of workers in Petaluma as well as Eureka, Huffman said in a phone interview. He urged the Postal Service to look for other ways to save money, such as switching to more gas-efficient vehicles.

He is co-sponsoring a bill with Thompson that would allow the Postal Service to ship wine. That would provide a boost for agency reveneu in Sonoma County, Huffman said.

"There's a lot we can do without sacrificing…the level of service," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Elo?a Ruano Gonz?ez at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.)