New England Views: At rural post offices, a steady erosion of service

Last modified: 1/13/2014 9:56:30 AM
Many small-town post offices have suspected that their hours, if not days, are numbered. While the U.S. Postal Service in 2012 called off drastic plans to close many rural post offices, it has been proceeding apace with other budget-cutting measures, including curtailing counter service at post offices throughout the Upper Valley. In Corinth, Hartland Four Corners and Thetford, Vt., and in Piermont and Lyme Center, N.H., and beyond weekday service has been cut from eight hours to four or less.

Now, as part of a two-year national plan well under way, customer service is likely to be shortened at other local post offices as well. The current proposal calls for reducing weekday hours from more than seven to six in such places as East Corinth, Strafford, Thetford Center and Tunbridge, Vt. In North Hartland, Post Mills, South Pomfret and Vershire, among other Vermont towns, the hours would be halved to four, and in North Thetford, Vt., to just two. The U.S. Postal Service is near completion of a review targeting window service at 32 post offices in the region, according to spokeswoman Melissa Lohnes, who said the operational changes instituted nationwide so far have saved significant amounts of money. “Given our dire financial condition, we need this boost now,” she said.

In light of the fact that the agency originally intended to close several thousand rural post offices throughout the country and eliminate Saturday delivery, proposals to further curtail weekday hours might not seem so bad. Even so, the news is dispiriting. Post offices represent a vital government service, and closing more of them for longer periods of time is an inconvenience, and oftentimes a hardship, for people who still need to mail letters and packages, buy stamps or pay bills through the mail – as many do in rural areas.

Furthermore, post offices in rural regions have long served as informal community centers where patrons often encounter friends and acquaintances, and exchange news, information and gossip. Cutting back on service may increase some residents’ social isolation, especially those who look forward to their habitual trip to post office (post boxes will remain accessible even if counter service is closed). It is ironic that the Postal Service, which blames its financial misfortunes in part on email and digital communication, has chosen to make significant cutbacks on the far side of the digital divide, in areas where broadband technology still lags and people actually rely on old-fashioned mail.

The agency, which is hemorrhaging billions annually, has focused on rural post offices because they are expensive to operate and don’t generate much revenue. But as Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California has pointed out, budget cuts to the smallest post offices don’t add up to much relative to the Postal Service’s total budget. Operating the country’s 10,000 smallest post offices costs about $600 million a year, or less than one-eighth of the $5 billion spent on the U.S. network of 32,000 post offices in 2012, according to Issa, who favors consolidation in more populated areas.

The steady erosion of postal services in rural regions may seem inevitable. But if residents are displeased about current plans, we urge them to attend meetings scheduled to discuss the changes afoot. Notices will be delivered to residents according to ZIP code, and the meeting schedule is available through the USPS website by searching for “Post Plan.” Widespread dissatisfaction with the original plan to close many rural post offices forced the Postal Service to think again. Users aren’t likely to have too much sway now, but they should make their objections known nonetheless. If Congress isn’t going to save the post office from irrelevance – or cancellation – the people who use it should at least speak up.

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