INGOMAR — One hundred and fifty people with a lot of questions greeted Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe Thursday afternoon in Ingomar, one of 85 Montana communities that could lose its post office in a move by the Postal Service to cut costs.
They came from as far away as Wyoming and Clyde Park. Twenty hopped a bus in Rosebud provided by the school district.
Superintendent Matt Kleinsasser said he provided the bus because the Rosebud Post Office, one of 85 in rural Montana being considered for closure in a cost-cutting effort by the Postal Service, is vital to the school district.
If Rosebud’s post office closes, the district will have to use the post office in Forsyth 12 miles away, he said. Given the amount of mail the school receives and sends, someone would be making the trip at least once a day, he said.
“It would take an hour a day out of someone’s work schedule,” he said.
Someone from the school district visits the Rosebud Post Office almost daily to weigh packages and send bulk mail. Much of that mail, including student grades, transcripts and other items needs to be secured at a post office.
Christine Dutton of Sand Springs, another town with a post office on the review list, said that if she couldn’t get her mail at Sand Springs, she would have to get one of her neighbors to drive her 100 miles round trip to Jordan or Winnett to get her mail.
“I’m legally blind,” she said. “I can’t drive.”
Like many others who filled the Tri-Rec Gymnasium, she worried what closing rural post offices would mean for people who received their medication by mail. The nearest pharmacists who can fill her husband’s asthma prescriptions are more than 100 miles away in Billings or Great Falls.
Montana’s climate doesn’t make access easy now, a rancher from the Ingomar area said. She lives 20 miles out of town on a gravel road that isn’t passable when its rains and is dangerous when the snow blows. At least with the Ingomar Post Office open, she knows that her family’s temperature-sensitive medicines are safe until she can get to town.
Donahoe, who came to Montana at the invitation of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., assured the crowd several times that their post offices were “under review” and not set for closure. When they complained that they would have to drive long distances to get their mail, he said, “I don’t think you should, either.”
Several in the crowd said that it would be easier to close post offices in urban areas where the next post office wasn’t miles away.
Baucus, who opposes closures of rural post offices, asked Donahoe when decisions would be made on the fate of post offices set for review. The answer was a little vague. The postmaster general said that the Postal Service would go back to each of the 3,700 post offices under review for more suggestions and ideas on how costs could be contained. He hopes that process can be complete by the first of July.
Several in the audience had some suggestions on how the Postal Service could raise revenue.
Some advocated a yearly surcharge to postal customers to pay for service.
“I don’t think anyone would object to paying every year what I pay to rent a box,” said a customer from Rosebud.
Another asked why the government didn’t provide financial support for the Postal Service as it did for other government services.
Baucus said that had been discussed. Later, Donahoe said, “We don’t use tax dollars. We don’t want tax dollars.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, Donahoe, who listened intensely through two hours of comments, received a standing ovation.
He promised to look into some specific problems participants discussed, and said he needed to hear their suggestions and complaints before more decisions are made.
Some of the other options under consideration are five-day mail delivery instead of six, shorter hours at some post offices and a combination of other cost-saving ideas.
In the latest census, Ingomar has a population of 95.
Earlier on Thursday, about 100 other people came to the Helena Regional Airport Thursday to meet with Donahoe.
“People need their rural post offices,” said DeDe Rhodes of Basin, who said she has no Internet service and already must drive four-and-a-half miles to get her mail at the Basin Post Office, between Helena and Butte. “Let’s not cut off the only (government) service that we have out here.”
State and local officials, postal workers and other citizens lined up to ask Donahoe questions and make suggestions on how the Postal Service could close a multibillion-dollar budget gap yet maintain services.
But most came to say how they don’t want to lose services they consider vital to their community and themselves.
“What I want to know is, are we going to have the post office down there (in Toston) or not?” asked Francis Hill, a disabled veteran who said he’s had two strokes and two heart attacks and relies on the mail to get his medications.
If the Toston office is closed, Hill said he’d have to travel 11 miles one way into nearby Townsend to get his mail, instead of going two blocks.
“Our intent is to keep as many places open as we can,” Donahoe replied. “We don’t want to take access away from the American public. ... We do not want to take services away from any American, especially veterans.”
However, Donahoe said the Postal Service has lost and will continue to lose a huge chunk of its revenue, as the use of first-class mail drops because people increasingly use the Internet to communicate and pay bills.
“We are in a heck of a financial situation,” he said.
Baucus has declined to support a bill before the U.S. Senate to help the Postal Service get out of its financial bind, because the bill didn’t go far enough to ensure delivery standards for rural residents.
He noted that the Washington, D.C., area has 50 post offices.
“It just seems to me if there are 50 post offices within a five-mile radius of Washington, D.C., ... if we’re going to close some post offices, those folks can maybe go an extra mile, or two miles,” he said.