Rural post offices gain tenuous new lease on lifeThis week the town of Kerrick is heaving a collective sigh of relief – for the time being, at least. Last Wednesday the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced it had decided to save many of those post offices slated for extinction, opting to cut back on hours of operation instead.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
The yard outside the Kerrick Post Office sports a lilac bush, a bench, a picnic table and a community bulletin board. The postage-stamp-size building serves as not only the local mail pickup and delivery center but as a community gathering place, a wellness checkpoint for the senior citizens who stop by nearly every day, and an informal clearing house for area news.
Next door stands the historic brick building that houses Northview Bank. Just around the corner, the Kerrick Community Church and St. Michael’s sit face to face, and across the way is the local off-sale liquor establishment.
That’s pretty much all it takes for the tiny community, located just over the county line, to get by. Take just one of those parts of the equation away, however – like the abandoned Mobile station along the highway – and both the town and its residents suffer.
That’s exactly what the community found itself faced with last fall as the United States Postmaster General made the announcement that the Kerrick Post Office, along with some 3,699 other small rural post offices across the United States, would soon be closed down as an urgent cost-saving measure.
This week the town of Kerrick is heaving a collective sigh of relief – for the time being, at least. Last Wednesday the United States Postal Service (USPS) announced it had decided to save many of those post offices slated for extinction, opting to cut back on hours of operation instead.
“We’ve listened to our customers in rural America, and we’ve heard them loud and clear – they want to keep their post office open,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in a news conference last Wednesday.
The move came on the heels of extensive backlash from many of small communities such as Kerrick, Brookston and Wright, who found themselves at risk of losing their local post offices. Leading the charge among area supporters was Kerrick City Clerk Deb Stadin, who organized a petition signed by many Kerrick area residents voicing their opposition to the local closure.
“Having a post office in an urban area is a convenience – in the rural area, it is a necessity,” argued Stadin, suggesting the postal service instead consider downsizing in large cities where there is a post office every couple of blocks in order to cut expenses.
“People like their post offices,” USPS regional spokesman Pete Nowacki said from Minneapolis last week. “It’s important to people. We heard that a lot.”
Stadin’s daughter, Terri, is the Kerrick officer in charge, and she runs the post office as a staff of one on weekdays, sorting the mail, cleaning the office, and waiting on customers at the front counter. Terri said the people of the town are “grateful but hesitant” about the most recent decision to keep the post office open, though it is now slated to have its hours of operation cut in half.
“They’re wondering just what will come next, whether the new plan will work, and just how the reduced hours will affect them and their ability to get to the post office when they need to,” she said.
Reaction in the small town of Brookston has been much the same.
“The folks seem to feel a little bit better about it,” commented long-time Postmaster Jim Teslan. “It was good to hear that the closure is not going to happen, but we’ll just have to wait and see what comes next, since nothing is really final yet.”
Teslan has been with the U.S. Postal Service for 39 years, the last 24 of which have been spent at the Brookston Post Office. He agreed the postal service has changed a great deal over that time.
“I realized that things were changing,” he said, “but I never thought the post office would find itself in this position.”
Like Kerrick, the Brookston Post Office has been targeted to have its daily hours of operation cut in half – from eight hours to four – though Teslan said he’s uncertain just how those hours will be calculated.
“Right now, our standard business day is eight hours,” said Teslan, “but our retail hours only amount to six and a half of those hours. I’m not sure just where the reductions will hit.”
Though the Wrenshall Post Office was not among those targeted for closure last fall, it did find itself on the most recent list for reduced hours, slated to go down from the current eight hours to six.
Wrenshall Postmaster Gail Francette said she has received inquiries from patrons almost every week since last fall’s closure announcements, expressing concern that Wrenshall might be next on the list.
“Now, they’re happy to hear there’s still going to be a post office here,” said Francette, “but we don’t know anything yet about just how the hours will be reduced.”
She explained that her understanding is that before any final decisions on reductions in hours are made, the postal service first needs to conduct extensive studies that could take several months to determine such things as traffic volume and how the percentages need to be balanced between operating hours and retail hours.
Fortunately for Wrenshall, five or six years ago Francette proposed a security expansion to the building where the approximately 115 post office box patrons could access their boxes 24 hours a day, seven hours a week. She said ever since then, the outer lobby has received heavy usage during the post office’s off hours.
“People tell me all the time that they come by in the middle of the night!” said Francette. “These days so many people drive outside the Wrenshall area to work, and they often can’t get to the post office during business hours.”
The Wright Post Office, also slated to close this year, will stay open, but under a half-time operating schedule. Wright Postmaster Theresa Suhonen and her supervisor, Lynn Line at the Tamarack Post Office, declined to make comment on the changes.
Dean Granholm, vice president for delivery and post office operations for the U.S. Postal Service, has estimated that about 3,000 postmasters, 500 station managers and between 500 and 1,000 postal clerks would have stood to lose their jobs as a result of the proposed closures.
He reported that of the nearly 3,700 post offices proposed for closure, some 3,000 of them have annual revenue of less than $27,500, and a workload of less than two hours per day. Compared with the $100,000 or so it takes to run a post office, said Granholm, many of them are not even breaking even.
The USPS suffered record-breaking profit losses and an $8.5 billion deficit during the 2010 fiscal year.
Last week’s announcement by the USPS came just as a five-month moratorium on post office closures was set to expire on May 15.
At last week’s briefing, Donahoe prodded Congress to act quickly on legislation that will allow the agency to move ahead with a broader, multi-billion-dollar cost-cutting effort that would help it return to profitability by 2015.
In the meantime, the small, local post offices who have gained a new lease on life through the recent decision to keep their doors open are proceeding with cautious optimism.
“It’s not easy making these types of decisions,” acknowledged Francette, “but I give them credit for making the hard ones.”
Mike Creger of Forum Communications and the Associated Press contributed to this story.