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Illinois Country Living


Neither rain nor sleet nor a changing economy
The Postal Service is adapting but some rural post offices may close

By Michelle McNeal

Small town post office

A small town post office like this one in New Holland offers rural residents like Roger Harmon service he still needs. He worries the closure of his local post office could eliminate his ability to have convenient access to a post office box; something he feels is more secure than a mailbox.

New Holland resident Barb Struebing uses her local post office, but she knows it could be one that is closed or consolidated. In a town of 350 the post office is really needed, but hard for the USPS to justify when it needs to cut expenses.

There are many things that have improved rural life over the years. One was the Rural Electrification Administration — the REA that helped light up isolated rural areas long after city dwellers learned the benefits of electricity. But before that Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was a one of the first programs to open up the world to rural residents. In 1890 it was an experimental idea, but by 1902 RFD became a permanent service. Today it’s the Internet service that is changing everything.

A lot of things that used to come and go by mail have stopped. Internet service has allowed us to write letters and send pictures by e-mail, pay bills online and much more. Its impact on the United States Postal Service (USPS), along with many other factors, may mean small rural post offices will be shut down or consolidated.

First class mail, like letters and bills, are the biggest revenue producers for the USPS. Bulk mail, like this magazine, is processed a lot differently, more automatically and so costs less to send.

Valerie Hughes, official spokesperson for the USPS, says mail volume has declined 6 percent each year over the past three years. Over the past five years Americans have sent 43.1 billion less pieces of first class mail. That’s a lot less revenue while costs remain about the same.

Hughes also notes that though regulated by the federal government, the USPS is not tax supported; it is supported solely through revenue of its products. The USPS ended fiscal year 2010 with an $8.5 billion shortfall. Like any business, when sales decline, something has to change.

“We are doing all we can to reduce costs, save money and streamline operations while maintaining customer service,” she says. “We are trying to change how we do business to adapt to how our customers are doing business.”

In addition to not sending as much mail, Hughes says Americans are sending mail differently and using the traditional brick and mortar post office building less. After all, these days you can buy stamps online, at ATMs, drugstores, office stores, through your letter carrier and at a host of other places. And letter carriers can pick up your packages for you at your home as well.

Hughes says alternatives like these are increasing and the postal service is planning to do more to match how customers want to do business.

But the USPS has to find ways to cut expenses and one way to reduce costs is by eliminating Saturday delivery. It’s the least busy day of the week for mail and many businesses are closed. Another option is to close some of the smaller post offices. Out of 32,000 post offices, Hughes says 26,000 have expenses that exceed their revenue.

Hughes says that two small towns, Roxana and Wood River, located just a few miles from each other in Madison County, recently consolidated. The population of Roxana is 1,547 and Wood River is 10,936. “The lease is up in Roxana so we won’t renew that lease. The Wood River Post Office will have the names of both towns on it. There won’t be any change in address for customers – they will still have Roxana as their town and their own zip code. Mail was already being sorted and delivered out of the Wood River post office. A few customers had post office boxes at the Roxana office and they will now have to drive to Wood River to keep that access – it’s a few miles,” she says.

That’s the scenario that could happen in a town near you. Could your post office be next? That remains to be seen. Closing offices is a 57-step process that includes notifying the community. It can take 21 months, and federal law prohibits closing an office because of economic reasons alone. It will literally take an act of Congress to do it. However, the USPS has asked Congress to approve and speed up the process. It’s predicted that offices to close will be announced this summer and closed by September.

“Most customers won’t see a huge difference,” Hughes emphasizes. But for some residents of tiny towns across Illinois the closure of a post office is more than just the loss of a place to buy stamps. It’s one more business they see leaving an already nearly barren main street. Closures could create a hardship on some, especially the elderly.

“We need something in our small town,” says Barb Struebing, a resident of New Holland, population about 350, situated in Logan County between Mason City and Lincoln. Some residents here have heard about the possibility of post office closures and are pretty resigned to the fact that their post office is probably one of those on the closure list. They understand how business works, but still there’s a sadness about losing one more business.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” says resident Roger Harmon. “I’ve lived here 30 years. When I moved here there was a gas station, school, restaurant, general store, beauty salon, insurance agency and a lot more. Now they are all gone.”

“It’s a way of life around here anymore,” says the New Holland Post Office’s Postmaster Relief Jennifer Moore. “People here are used to seeing things go and to seeing businesses close. It’s a shame.” Jennifer works at the post office as a substitute of sorts for when the postmaster isn’t there. On the Monday morning she spoke to us she had opened at 8 a.m. and at 11:30 had seen three customers. About 10 people came in to get their mail out of post office boxes. Another man came in for directions. Jennifer says Saturdays are a little busier. Maybe Saturday’s are busier in a small town post office. But still, that’s not much business.

There are also two rural carriers working out of the office, one route has about 50 boxes and the other between 75 and 100. About 200 residents choose to get their mail by post office box in the lobby of the office. And that’s the part that bothers Harmon. “Anyone can get into a box in the yard, but not here where I have a key, it’s more secure. I like that.”

Right now the people here have only questions: Will hours simply reduce or will the entire building close, and will those using post office boxes have to travel to Mason City or Lincoln?

The USPS says, “The Postal Service, before reaching a ‘final determination’ to close or consolidate an office, must give all parties 60 days notice during which comments may be filed with the Postal Service. If the Postal Service subsequently makes a ‘final determination’ to take the proposed action, a posted notice of such action must be provided, and then all patrons have 30 days to appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission.”


Stamp Out Hunger - Saturday, May 14

The National Association of Letter Carrier’s will hold its annual Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive on Saturday, May 14. The largest single-day food drive in America, it has collected more than 1 billion pounds of food since the drive began in 1993.

What to do: If your postal carrier is participating, just leave a bag of non-perishable food by your mailbox. Your carrier will pick it up when he/she delivers your mail that day and all donations will be taken to your local food pantry. Go to www.helpstampouthunger.com for more information.

 

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