Communities Seek Routes to Save Post Offices From Being Stamped Out

By Caitlin McDevitt
The Big Money
Sunday, June 28, 2009

A rallying cry can be heard across the country, from the swanky streets of SoHo to the tiny town of Randolph, Kan. -- "Save Our Post Office!" As the United States Postal Service, weighed down by a crippling multibillion-dollar deficit, shrinks its operations, post offices across the country are on the chopping block. Each year, hundreds of postal operations shutter, but this fall could be the single biggest consolidation in USPS history. Over the next three months, more than 3,200 post offices and retail outlets -- out of 34,000 -- will be reviewed for possible closure or consolidation.

Downsizing is a business imperative, says Linda Welch, acting vice president of delivery and post office operations at USPS. "Revenues have declined, and mail volume continues to decline," she says. Not only have e-mail and electronic bill-paying made for a thinner mail stream, the recession has added a sharp pullback in advertising mail, which has hurt the Postal Service even more. In March, Postmaster General John E. Potter asked Congress for permission to reduce the mail week from six days to five, projecting $3.5 billion in savings. Shutting down post offices will have similar cost-saving effects. And most Americans say they're fine with the cutbacks, as long as they're not paying more to send mail. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that more Americans would rather the Postal Service curtail operations than seek a bailout or raise stamp prices.

At least, that's what everyone says -- until it's their own beloved post office at stake. Consider the case of the Hawleyville, Conn., post office. After years of negotiations, this January, the Postal Service notified the community that its 166-year-old post office would officially close on Feb. 14. An article in the local newspaper poignantly noted, "The long love affair between the Hawleyville post office and its loyal customers will come to an end on -- of all days -- Valentine's Day." The post office was rickety, but the small community embraced it as a gathering place. One resident told the Newtown Bee, "The Hawleyville post office is like Cheers in Hawleyville." Fearing the loss of their precious haunt, the Hawleyville citizens mobilized. A Web site was created. A petition was circulated. They got Congress involved. And lo and behold, the community won approval for a new post office, to be opened this summer.

Every time a post office is slated for closure or consolidation, the Postal Service is legally obligated to inform its customers well in advance. "There's a very long process that they have to go through," says Mario Principe, the post office continuance consultant at the National League of Postmasters. That gives the communities plenty of time -- usually at least two months -- to stage a rescue.

The Postal Service will typically send out a survey or host a town-hall meeting before an endangered office closes. Perhaps a closing would cut too many jobs in an already hurting community. The office might house the bulletin board with important local announcements. Or perhaps the next-closest post office may be far away. If customers alert officials to such concerns, there's a better chance their office will be spared. Appealing the decision to the Postal Regulatory Commission often works, too -- but it's a step many communities don't know to take.

It's also important to check out why a post office is on the chopping block. Those under review this summer are mostly metropolitan. But in the case of small post offices, federal law states that the reason can't be solely that the office isn't bringing in enough revenue. Often, post offices face closure because their leases expire. That's the case in Deer Harbor, Wash. After failed attempts to find a new location for the post office, the community bought the property "in desperation" just to keep it running. If they can raise the $250,000 purchase price by the end of this month, the Postal Service has agreed to continue operations.

The Postal Service seems willing to negotiate, and it's not really bothered by the protests.

"It actually makes us very proud to know that we are a valuable member of the community," says Welch. She says that the USPS appreciates the great lengths that some communities will go to just to ensure that their services can continue. What would the Postal Service appreciate even more? If people would just send more mail. Oddly enough, that seems to be the unthinkable last resort.


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