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Post office changes reach Canterbury, where tiny office a part of town fabric

Last modified: 7/26/2014 1:06:52 AM
The Canterbury Post Office is located in a white clapboard building, where it rents space from the town’s country store. A blue mailbox with the U.S. Postal Service logo and a small painted sign hanging from the awning are the only indications it is there.

On a recent Thursday morning, only a few residents came in to buy stamps, check their P.O. box and chat with longtime postmaster Ted LeClair.

“This just happens to be the dead time of the day,” said Joe Halla, who runs the Canterbury Country Store. “There are some times around the holidays when he really has a lot of stuff going through there.”

But the overall mail volume is down, and as the postal service continues consolidating branches across the country, small offices such as Canterbury’s have been pegged for service reductions beginning in the fall.

The Canterbury proposal would cut daily hours of operation and reduce the postmaster position from full time to part time. The changes are part of a larger Post Office Structure Plan launched in 2012 by 67 postal service districts. Part of the plan includes notifying affected communities of adjusted local retail hours and asking them to consider other options.

So far, 9,166 post offices have been affected, and the total is expected to reach 13,000, according to USPS spokeswoman Maureen Marion. The cuts were made in response to the department’s loss of $26 billion over the last three years. As many as 82 processing facilities will be closed next year, following the consolidation of 141 facilities in 2012 and 2013 that generated $865 million in annual cost savings without requiring layoffs. The current round of changes are expected to generate $750 million in annual savings, according to USPS.

LeClair is a friendly and polite man who is part of the fabric of Canterbury life. On Sept. 30, his position as postmaster will end. He could stay on through the transition, working three quarters of the hours and making less money. He first announced the changes in the Canterbury Newsletter, where he wrote: “I had planned on staying here. However, my decision will depend on how these things affect my finances, my retirement and my health.” On Thursday, he chatted briefly but said he couldn’t comment on the changes. “I’m not really supposed to say anything, so I guess I shouldn’t,” he said.

Canterbury residents have been asked to weigh four options: keep the post office with a reduction in hours, close the office and offer curbside delivery, close the post office and open one operated by a third party, or close it and provide P.O. box service at a nearby office. About 1,000 surveys were mailed out and responses will be tallied at a public meeting Tuesday with postal service officials.

“But let me clear: Community meeting and surveys do not change the application of the Post Plan to Canterbury,” Marion said. “The change in hours is established, and there is no appeal process to the Post Plan.”

The likeliest outcome is a reduction of daily hours, she said. In New Hampshire, post offices in Barnstead, Hill and East Andover have been pegged for reductions, while Boscawen lost its post office in 2012 over a new contract provision for postal workers.

The postal service is cutting hours in two-, four- and six-hour increments, based on a formula of workload, customer demand and availability of alternatives. “Consistent application of these metrics gave us an even-handed approach to studying offices around the nation,” Marion said.

“In the case of the Canterbury (post office), hours would be reduced from 7.75 hours each weekday to 4 hours per weekday if the community opts for that choice on their survey,” Marion said. Saturday hours and access to delivery receptacles won’t change, she said.

In 2012, the postal service closed Boscawen’s King Street post office as the result of a new union agreement. A petition with more than 700 signatures couldn’t prevent the closing, which sent customers to offices in Salisbury and Penacook. Longtime postmistress Laura Lane lost her job as a result of the closure, a change she said made Boscawen customers worse off.

“I think it’s the smaller post offices that really make the good impressions on customers,” Lane said. “They go above and beyond because you appreciate your people.”

The postal service is not fulfilling its duty to customers when it closes offices, she said.

“Probably 50 percent of my people could walk to the post office. Now they have to get in their cars to get the mail. I just felt with the economy the way it was that it wasn’t fair,” Lane said.

The changes in Canterbury and LeClair’s potential departure were talking points Thursday morning at the country store. Wayne Noyes said his parents have gotten their mail from the post office for 30 years, and now that they are in their 80s, he’s taken on the responsibility. “They’ve never had a mailbox,” he said. “It’s the interaction they like. Coming here is kind of like the old time.”

Alison Witschonski, 20, was the youngest person who walked in the store Thursday morning. “I come a couple of times a week. It’s good for bills, Netflix movies, letters,” she said. “It’s always been here. I think the first person I ever talked to here was the postmaster.”

In 10 years behind the counter, Halla said he hasn’t seen a major dip in post office use. He took the survey, and said he felt the hour reduction may be the best option available.

“It would create the least amount of turmoil,” he said. “I can’t conceive there’s going to be anyone who is going to say, ‘Close the post office.’ ”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)


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