Some rural post office users anxious for news on closures

2012-05-07T23:45:00Z 2012-05-08T00:35:44Z Some rural post office users anxious for news on closuresBy KELSEY DAYTON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
May 07, 2012 11:45 pm  • 

LANDER, Wyo. — Since Mary Spence was born in the Cora area more than 70 years ago, one thing has been constant: the post office.

Cora, according to local legend, began as a small building of the same name — that of an infamous cowgirl — where mail arrived twice a week. That was more than 100 years ago. When mail service moved to another building, the name Cora followed it.

Today, the fate of Cora’s historic post office and other rural mail stations across the country is unknown.

Things could become clearer in a week. In November, Congress requested, and the U.S. Postal Service approved, a moratorium on post office closures until May 15 so lawmakers could find ways to help the financially strapped mail carrier.

Spence and other residents of rural Wyoming communities have waited almost a year for final word on their post offices, which deliver prescription medicines, online shopping purchases and act as community centers in isolated areas.

The Postal Service announced in July plans to study more than 3,000 rural post offices nationwide in an effort to cut costs for the non-tax-supported business. Forty-three Wyoming post offices made the list. Postal Service officials said the cuts could save up to $200 million a year.

During the moratorium, Spence and other residents have written letters to Wyoming’s congressional delegation and Postal Service officials explaining the office is vital to Cora’s well-being.

“We just keep our fingers crossed,” Spence said.

On April 25, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution giving the Postal Service $11 billion to help pay down debt and also offer buyouts to about 100,000 employees. The money is basically a refund for overpayments the Postal Service made into a federal retirement fund.

The bill also placed a one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices and required special consideration for rural issues, protecting most offices that are more than 10 miles from another facility.

The Senate bill is not enough, said David Rupert, spokesman for the Postal Service in Denver.

While it would trim the work force by 100,000 people, it wouldn’t help with long-term issues, he said.

“The problem is that it sounds good, but the work still remains,” Rupert said. “We still have six days (of delivery). We still need people to man that.”

Rupert said the Postal Service isn’t looking for a bailout, just permission from Congress to make smart business decisions.

For example, he said, the Postal Service has the regulatory authority to close rural post offices but needs congressional approval to move to five-day delivery, which would save $3.1 billion per year.

“We don’t want a little Band-Aid,” he said. “We have a bleeding aorta.”

The Wyoming delegation wrote a letter to the postmaster general in November. The letter outlined Wyoming’s unique challenges, including distances between communities, extreme weather and difficult terrain. They cited one post office, which they declined to name, that serves three communities as an example. The nearest post office is 32 miles away, with 25 of those miles on a winding, narrow, two-lane road in an area that regularly gets wind gusts of 40 mph and higher in the winter and averages 55 inches of snow, the letter said.

The letter said greater savings could be achieved from closing urban locations where there are many post offices within a close distance and residents have access to public transportation.

The delegation encouraged the postal service to consider partnerships, such as having part-time employees rotate between various locations.

Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, both R-Wyo., supported provisions of the Senate bill, but didn’t support the final version because it added significantly to the nation’s deficit, both senators’ press secretaries said separately.

Enzi supported prohibiting rural post office closures, keeping six-day delivery for at least two years and allowing post offices to share commercial or government buildings to save money, said Daniel Head, Enzi’s press secretary.

The U.S. House has yet to vote on a bill regarding the Postal Service.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., favors moving to five-day delivery and closing urban post offices where there are many in one area, instead of shuttering rural post offices, she said in a statement released by her press secretary, Christine D’Amico.

“Those of us who live in rural areas understand the importance of accessibility to postal services, particularly those located in isolated areas,” she said in the statement. “... As Congress considers proposals to address the USPS financial situation, I will continue to evaluate any proposal based on the concerns and needs of Wyoming’s rural residents.”

Rupert said Postal Service officials are confident Congress will be able to address its long-term needs.

Head, with Enzi’s office, said the Senate, through a “Sense of the Senate,” a vote that expresses an opinion on a topic, asked closures be postponed until the reform bill becomes law.

So far, Postal Service officials haven’t talked about extending the May 15 moratorium, Rupert said. It’s unclear what will happen when the deadline passes.

“There’s not going to be mass closing on May 15,” Rupert said.

The Postal Service will provide details about steps dealing with rural post offices in the coming weeks, said Thurgood Marshall Jr., chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors.

During the moratorium, some post offices were off the list for potential closure based on studies, Rupert said. None of those is in Wyoming.

The post office in Frontier closed in September — before the moratorium agreement with Congress was made. Post offices in Freedom, Little America and Meridan were slated for closure, while the Horse Creek and Reliance post offices were “emergency suspended,” meaning they were closed because of a facility issue, such as no physical spot for the office or person to man it, Rupert said.

Rupert said Postal Service officials continued studying rural post offices on the list during the moratorium, but haven’t released which studies were completed and which offices were recommended for closure, Rupert said. Also, closure dates have yet to be established.

“For now, we’re keeping the flag up and the doors open,” Rupert said.

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