TOPICS > Economy

Many Post Offices Face Uncertain Fates as Cuts Loom

August 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In an effort to cut costs, the U.S. Postal Service announced more than 100,000 possible layoffs this week in addition to many post offices that are already targeted for closure. Tom Bearden reports how the closures might affect people and businesses in one small town in western Colorado.
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JIM LEHRER: For those stations not taking a pledge break, we look at changes coming from the U.S. Postal Service.

In addition to the more than 100,000 possible lay-offs that were just announced, many post offices are targeted to be closed.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports on the impact that might have on a small western Colorado town.

TOM BEARDEN: This is Parshall, Colo., zip code 80468, the unincorporated community on the banks of the Colorado River, not far from Rocky Mountain National Park, is a small collection of houses, a restaurant and a church. There’s also a U.S. post office.

Grant Burger is the postmaster. He’s had the job since 2006.

GRANT BURGER: I’ve lived here my whole life. My dad, his. My grandfather, most of his. We even have family that’s homesteaded.

And the post office provides a job that I can still live in a small hometown and be part of the community, which they always encourage.

$1.32.

TOM BEARDEN: But Burger might not be able to count on that job much longer. His post office is one of 3,700 offices on a list being studied for possible closure in the next six to nine months.

GRANT BURGER: The Parshall Post Office.

This is Grant.

TOM BEARDEN: It’s because the Postal Service is desperately trying to find ways to save money.

In the mid-’60s, an antiquated post office management structure was collapsing under the weight of a vastly increased volume of mail. Postal rates were heavily subsidized by the taxpayers and the agency was hemorrhaging money.

In 1971, Congress voted to abolish the post office as a cabinet level agency and replace it with a self-supporting corporation wholly owned by the U.S. government.

But now, some 40 years later, the U.S. Postal Service is again facing some harsh economic realities. In the last five years, mail volume has declined 20 percent. And the biggest money maker, first class mail, is down 25 percent, most of it siphoned off by e-mail and online banking.

That leaves the Postal Service with a huge over capacity in a system originally built to handle a lot more mail.

Al Dessaro is a Postal Service spokesman.

AL DESSARO: We don’t want to close the post office. We realize the importance that post office is, especially to many of the smaller communities and across rural America. And it’s just something we’re having to do. It’s the financial fiscal reality.

TOM BEARDEN: Congress is pushing the Postal Service hard to reduce costs in every way. Florida Republican Dennis Ross is the chairman of the House Postal Oversight Subcommittee.

REP. DENNIS ROSS, R-Fla. Postal Oversight Subcommittee: We either make the necessary systemic changes to the postal infrastructure or we continue to watch it become more outdated and accelerate the demise of the — of the Postal Service.

TOM BEARDEN: Not surprisingly, people around here aren’t very happy about the possible loss of their post office. The bar, Lazy Jay Dude Ranch, is a couple of miles down the road.

SHERRY AMOS HELMICHI: OK, here we go, Justin.

TOM BEARDEN: Its owner, Sherry Amos Helmichi, says it’s the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in the state, at 99 years. She says having a post office nearby is vital if her business is to continue to flourish.

SHERRY AMOS HELMICHI: All of our marketing, advertising, inquiries, information, newsletters, Christmas cards, you know, there’s — we use the post office on a regular basis.

TOM BEARDEN: She says closing the office would mean up to an hour long round trip to the nearest alternative office in Kremmling.

SHERRY AMOS HELMICHI: Following every person that’s here, we send a postcard out the week after they left here, just thanking them for coming to the ranch and, you know, thanking them for their business. The Internet is great, but word of mouth is — is the best.

TOM BEARDEN: The additional distance also bothers Curt Gullen, who already has a long trek from his home to pick up his mail.

CURT GULLEN: The cost, as far as having to drive that extra distance, you know, an additional 20 miles, whereas as even from here, it’s — it’s about 10 miles for me just to make it to here.

TOM BEARDEN: Nancy Pope is the curator of the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. She says rural post offices have historically been a matter of both civic pride and economic success.

NANCY POPE: The small town post office is and has been an emblem of local American towns since the very beginning, really. When you’re — especially when you’re looking at frontier towns and as we started expanding as a nation, the very first essence of the town was that you had a post office. You were recognized by the federal government as an organization, a town, a community. And that recognition was quite powerful.

TOM BEARDEN: Postmaster Burger says neighbors who live far apart run into each other at the post office. That’s how everybody keeps in touch, including him.

GRANT BURGER: It’s provided me the opportunity to — to know these people in this town more than I ever thought I would know, even to the degree where sometimes on my lunch hour, I find myself helping a neighbor bury his dog.

TOM BEARDEN: The post office says it won’t abandon its rural customers. In fact, it says mail delivery won’t change much at all. They have a new concept called the village post office, which will look a little like today’s automated centers. The agency will contract with local businesses to take over things like stamp sales and flat rate packages. But they would provide fewer services than full-fledged post offices.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe talked about that when he announced the list of possible office closures recently.

PATRICK DONAHOE, postmaster general: If you think about it, in many small towns today, you’ve got a post office, you’ve got a store and a gas station. And now — and many of these general stores are hanging on for dear life out there, just with the — the recession and a lot of the other issues that they face.

When we contract, say, with a grocer, what that does is it gives them the ability to take the money that we bring in, pay the rent, pay the light bill and not only it gives access to customers, in many cases, it gives these — some of these small businesses the opportunity to stay open and stay vibrant in their communities.

TOM BEARDEN: Until recently, there was a general store right across the street from the post office that might have served as a new village post office. But Burger says the elderly woman who ran it passed away and it shut down. He says it’s uncertain if her relatives will ever reopen it.

Rancher Amos Helmichi says a village post office wouldn’t help her very much in any case. Much of her mail goes to international destinations and village post offices can’t process that class of mail.

It’s also uncertain whether the Postal Service will be able to make all the changes it believes are necessary to stop losing money. The patrons of the Parshall post office will eventually have a chance to speak their peace about all this. The Postal Service will stage a public meeting, as it will in all of the places facing closure before making a final decision on the fate Parshall’s post office.