As mail volume declines, the US Postal Service could shutter up to 3,200 post offices and retail outlets. Most people say they understand -- unless it's their post office.
A rallying cry can be heard across the country, from the swanky streets of New York's 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 coming fall could be the single biggest consolidation in Postal Service 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 the Postal Service. "Revenues have declined, and mail volume continues to decline," she says.
Not only have e-mail and electronic bill paying made for a skinnier mail stream, but the recession has caused a sharp pullback in advertising mail that has hurt the Postal Service even more.
In March, Postmaster General John Potter asked Congress for the right to reduce the mail week from six days to five, for a savings of $3.5 billion. Shutting down post offices will have similar cost-saving effects. And most Americans say they're OK with the cutbacks, as long as they don't have to pay more to send mail. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that more Americans would rather the Postal Service curtail services than seek a bailout or raise stamp prices.
At least, that's what everyone says -- until it's their beloved post office at stake. For various reasons, people tend to react with great fervor when their local offices are endangered.
Consider the case of the Hawleyville Post Office. After years of negotiations, the Postal Service in January notified the Connecticut community that its 166-year-old post office would close 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."
Its post office was rickety, but the community embraced it as a gathering place. One resident told the Newtown Bee, "The Hawleyville Post Office is like Cheers in Hawleyville."
In fear of losing its precious haunt, the community mobilized. A Web site and online petition drive were created. Members 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.
Anatomy of a closureThe Postal Service will typically send out a survey or host a town hall meeting before an endangered office closes. Perhaps the closing of a post office means too many lost jobs for an already-hurting community. The office might house the bulletin board that posts important community announcements. Or the next-closest post office may be really far away. If customers alert officials to such concerns, there's a better chance that their office will be spared. Appealing the closure decision to the Postal Regulatory Commission often works, too, though 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 in the first place. Those under review this summer are mostly metropolitan branches or stations. But in the case of small post offices, federal law states that the reason can't be just that the office isn't bringing in enough revenue. If that's the only explanation given, then the Postal Service can't legally shut it down.Oftentimes, post offices face closure because their leases expire. That's the case in Deer Harbor, Wash. After attempts to find a new location for the post office failed, the community decided "in desperation" to buy the property just to keep it in business. If the community can raise the $250,000 purchase price by the June 30, the Postal Service says it will continue operations there.
The Postal Service seems willing to negotiate, and it's not really bothered by the protests. "It actually it makes us very proud to know that we are a valuable member of the community," says Welch. She says that the Postal Service appreciates the great lengths that some communities will go to just to ensure that their services continue.
What the Postal Service would appreciate even more: If those people would show their appreciation by taking the simple step of sending more mail. Oddly enough, that seems to be the unthinkable last resort.
This article was reported by Caitlin McDevitt for The Big Money.
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