At a Crossroads
May 7th, 2012 by Curtis Condon

Thousands of post offices face possible closure as the U.S. Postal Service struggles for its very survival

postofficeResidents of Deadwood, Oregon, gather outside their post office to rally in support of it. They cluster in tight knots of humanity not only to brace against the weather, but also as a show of solidarity.

They are joined by people from nearby Swisshome, Yachats and other far-flung towns who believe in their cause. Many of them face the same uncertain future.
Temperatures are frigid and an occasional drizzle wets the crowd, but the fire inside of them makes them oblivious to the cold. Some carry signs, others chant, but everyone signs the petition to save the post office.

That event took place last December. However, the fervor with which supporters continue the fight has not waned.

Deadwood normally is a quiet, unincorporated town in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range. Like most small towns, the post office is the de facto hub of activity and community identity.

Unfortunately, Deadwood—and thousands of other communities across the country—is in danger of losing its post office, as the U.S. Postal Service grapples with a multibillion-dollar funding crisis that has festered for years.

More than 3,600 underutilized, underperforming or redundant post offices are on a list of facilities being studied for possible closure as a cost-saving measure. The doors of those post offices could be locked forever, beginning as early as this month.

Collateral Damage

If the Deadwood Post Office closes, it likely will be consolidated with the Mapleton Post Office 14 miles away. That means a 28-mile round trip for Deadwood residents, or an even longer drive for those living outside of town.

Michelle Holman believes closing the Deadwood Post Office will hurt more than just individual families. She is a board member for the Mapleton School District. Her concern is about the impact the closure will have on communications with parents.

“We use the post office for many things involving the school district, including posting meeting agendas, lunch calendars and menus,” she says.
Budget tightening already has forced the district to eliminate its school newsletter, which Michelle describes as “a great conduit” for getting information to area parents.

“We are already dealing with a loss of communication, and losing a meeting place like the post office would make things even more difficult,” she says.

Some of the post offices slated for closure will be consolidated with nearby offices. Others will be supplanted by “village” post offices operated by existing businesses in the communities.

The closures and service changes will affect millions of Americans. The trade-off is significant cost savings, counters the Postal Service. It estimates the plan will save the agency $1 billion annually. Yet that figure represents only a fraction of the savings needed to staunch the flow of red ink.

From the Frying Pan Into the Fire

The Postal Service lost $5.1 billion in 2011. It marked the fifth straight year of losses.

The agency’s financial situation shows no sign of improving. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2012 alone, the loss was $3.3 billion. Despite ongoing cuts, retirements and other cost-saving measures, plummeting mail volume and rising gas prices—among other factors—have the agency on track to lose even more money this year than in 2011.

The Postal Service’s fiscal problems are compounded by the fact it is not a typical government agency. It hasn’t been since the Postal Reorganization Act was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. It has operated as an independent agency the past 42 years, with oversight from the U.S. Congress.

“Contrary to the understanding of most Americans, the Postal Service is not supported—at all—through taxpayer dollars,” said U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, addressing the National Press Club last November. “We generate all of our revenues from the sale of postage, products and services. Unfortunately, while we have a mandate to operate like a business, the reality is that we do not have the flexibility under current law to function as a business.”

The Postal Service calculates that roughly 80 percent of its more than 32,000 post offices operate at a loss.

“We have thousands of post offices that bring in less than $20,000 in revenue in a year, but cost more than $60,000 to operate,” Donahoe said, adding that no business would or could allow those kinds of losses to continue.

Dollars and Sense

Opponents of the closure plan dispute it will save $1 billion, or even that the Postal Service should be run like a normal business, given its mission and universal service mandate. Most of them assert closing post offices is about more than just money.

“Many vulnerable populations depend on the local post office,” says Steve Hutkins, founder of the Save the Post Office website. He is a literature professor who teaches place studies at the Gallatin School of New York University.

The Internet has long been blamed for the Postal Service’s troubles, at least in terms of the continuing decline in first-class mail volume. However, Steve points out that not everyone has access to the benefits of the Internet.

“People on the other side of the digital divide depend on the post office as a primary means of communications,” he says, adding seniors, rural residents, small businesses and the poor are most vulnerable to the closures.

“But perhaps more than anything else, each post office is part of a vast infrastructure,” he says. “That infrastructure helped build the country, and even though we’re using the Internet and email more and more, that infrastructure continues to bind the country together.”

Steve is not alone in his views or his determination to stop the closures. Hundreds of other blogs, websites and online movements have brought attention to the situation.
Customers across the country threatened with the loss of their post offices also have become involved. Grassroots efforts of every kind have been under way since the list went public last summer. They have held rallies at local post offices, vocalized their opposition at public meetings and pressured their congressional delegations. As a result, a few post offices have been removed from the list; most have not.

Steve credits the magnitude of the effort to the fact the post office is at the center of American life, and it is “a key part of the identity of the town.”

“Many people feel like their town was born when it got a post office, and they fear that losing the post office will make the death of the place,” Steve says.

Retired school teacher and Deadwood resident Les Benscoter is one of them. He helped organize the December 2011 rally outside of the Deadwood Post Office. It was part of a statewide effort carried out at 23 Oregon post offices as a way for people to show their support.

Les lives right down the road from the Deadwood Post Office. He worries about what life in the community will be like if it is closed.

“It’s not just about me,” Les explains, regarding the effort to stop the closures. “It’s about the community and the future of Deadwood.”

Freelance journalist Kalie Eyman contributed to this article. For a list of the proposed closures and more information, visit www.usps.com or www.savethepostoffice.com.