hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




A vanishing rural scene?

Digital age leaves small post offices endangered


Contributing writer

To passersby on Route 315, the tiny Rupert post office offers a postcard image of rural Vermont.

A U.S. flag flies over the gable roof, and a sign above the porch displays the ZIP code: 05768. A blue mailbox occupies much of the porch. Flyers for moving sales and local concerts are posted on both sides of the front door.

But inside, a notice next to the post-office boxes warns that the U.S. Postal Service may soon shatter the idyllic scene. The Rupert post office, like more than 3,600 others across the nation and at least a half-dozen around the region, is under study for possible closure.

Besides the post office, the center of this mountainous town features a dozen homes, a cemetery, Congregational and Methodist churches and a building that houses the town library and historical society.

The post office, although it barely has enough room inside for four people at once, functions as a kind of informal community center.

One day in mid-August, postal clerk Elizabeth Winters was joking with two customers – Kerry Ellis-Swan and an older man who lingered inside on a rainy morning. Winters had already put up a green plaque above the 88 post-office boxes announcing that the morning’s mail had been distributed.

Winters didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. But according to a short written history she prepared, the Rupert post office is one of the six oldest in the United States, continuously active since 1816.

Ellis-Swan said she’d heard just that morning from U.S. Rep. Peter Welch’s office, which she’d contacted for help in keeping the post office open.

“We’re fighting,” she said.

The Rupert post office is one of 14 in Vermont being studied for closure – a list that also includes the office in Florence, in Rutland County. The Postal Service also closed its Center Rutland office earlier this year.

In New York, the Postal Service is considering shutting the North Hoosick post office and has already announced plans to close offices in South Glens Falls and Old Chatham. Service at South Glens Falls will end Sept. 9, while Old Chatham will likely close in mid-October.

And in the Berkshires, the Postal Service gave up its office in the hill town of Windsor last year after a lease dispute with the building’s owner. Now a similar confrontation is brewing in Stockbridge.

Technology-driven changes

As communications shift to the digital world, the Postal Service finds itself in a desperate situation. Over the past two decades, the advent of e-mail, direct deposit and online bill payments have dramatically reduced the volume of first-class mail. With the deep recession of the past three years, advertising mail is also down.

Since 2006, Postal Service statistics show mail volume has dropped by 43.1 billion pieces, customer traffic to post offices is down by 200 million visits, and purchase of postal products has slipped by $2 billion. In addition, the Postal Service faces a requirement, unique in the federal government, of putting $5.5 billion per year into a fund to pre-pay future retirees’ medical benefits.

The Postal Service has already cut about 130,000 employees and $12 billion in expenses over the last four years. Now the agency is expanding its cost-cutting campaign. The 3,600 retail post offices currently being studied for closure represent more than 10 percent of the total nationally.

But the idea of closing post offices is unpopular with the public, especially in rural places like Rupert and Old Chatham where some see the local post office as helping to sustain community identity.

“A survey showed that people would rather lose one day of delivery than lose their post offices,” said Eleanor Smith, a retired Vermont postmaster who represents New England on the Post Office Protection Committee of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States. The committee helps communities to organize against post-office closings.

The Postal Service, in fact, has proposed eliminating Saturday mail delivery. But Congress would have to approve that change, Smith said.

The decision to close individual post offices, on the other hand, is one the Postal Service can make on its own.

Choosing where to cut

Maureen P. Marion, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service’s Northeast region, said the agency has several criteria for identifying post offices it might close. It targets those with low workloads, low revenues, no postmaster or another post office within five miles.

In Old Chatham, for example, the clerk has been handling only 27 transactions a day and has a workload of about 30 minutes per day, she said.

“The revenue trend was down more than average,” Marion said, and Old Chatham’s last postmaster was promoted to a larger facility in 2008.

The Postal Service’s procedure for alerting patrons that an office is under study for closure includes posting notices, mailing a survey to people who live in that ZIP code, and possibly scheduling a public meeting. Patrons have 60 days to contact the agency to make the case for why their post office should stay open. Smith said that if the Postal Service decides to close the office, patrons have another 30 days to appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Marion said patrons of a closed office would have other options for getting their mail and postal supplies. If the district already has home deliveries, that would continue, and customers might even be able to keep the same address, although Smith noted this often changes after a few years.

Those with post-office boxes could rent boxes at another office or get home delivery where it’s available. Customers can also buy stamps and shipping boxes at many stores and over the Internet, Marion said.

The Postal Service is also considering replacing some traditional post offices with new outlets – called “village post offices” -- at which post-office boxes and a limited array of postal products would be offered at a supermarket, municipal office, or community center such as a library, Marion said.

“Eighty-five percent of all post-office transactions are stamp purchases,” she said. “We’d be putting that where people go.”

However, this wouldn’t be much help in a place like Rupert, where there aren’t any businesses or public buildings big enough, or open enough hours, to host such a facility. From Rupert, the nearest large supermarket is 10 miles away and across a state line in Granville, N.Y.

Unappealing alternatives

Janet Fram, who lives about a mile from the Rupert post office and owns a local business, The Country Gallery Antiques, is fighting hard to keep the office open. With others, Fram has organized a petition drive and has made frequent contact with elected and postal officials.

Fram briskly ticked off reasons why loss of the Rupert office would hurt her and her business. She could get delivery through the post office in West Pawlet, about six miles from her home, but then the town in her physical address would be different from the town in her mailing address.

“The post office gives credibility to my business,” Fram said. “I don’t want my business mail sitting in a box by the side of the road. Not all my customers are up to computer-age speed. They still want me to mail invoices and other correspondence.”

Fram said she frequently has to send small packages and samples of paint and wood, and she needs to sign for incoming packages. If the Rupert post office were to close, she could go to the office in West Rupert, which is less than 2 miles down Route 315 from the Rupert office and nearly as tiny. But Fram said that’s in the opposite direction from most of her other errands and again would involve a change of address.

The nearest Federal Express office is 25 miles round-trip, and Fram said United Parcel Service is too expensive for her to use.

Fram said she has the support of 31 small businesses in town.

“We’ll see more and more people working from home,” she said. “Why isn’t the post office offering more business services?”

Leaving a growing market?

Even in more densely populated communities like South Glens Falls, many say the loss of the local post office will mean inconvenience and loss of identity.

South Glens Falls has been the only post office in the town of Moreau, in northeastern Saratoga County. Town Supervisor Preston Jenkins said the effects of the office’s closing this month “will be all negative” for the growing suburban community.

South Glens Falls businesses will have to change their mailing addresses to Gansevoort, Fort Edward or Glens Falls, he said. Because the latter two communities are across the Hudson River in Washington and Warren counties, local businesses wouldn’t show up in a Web search for businesses in Saratoga County, Jenkins said.

Local officials from the town and South Glens Falls village governments frequently have to send out certified and registered mail and will now have to take that mail across the Hudson to Glens Falls to be processed, he said.

Moreau is one of the fastest-growing towns in the fastest-growing county in New York, Jenkins said.

“We have almost 15,000 customers for someone,” he said. “My question to the Postal Service is, ‘Why are you doing this?’”

But the Postal Service says post-office-box customers in South Glens Falls can be accommodated at the Glens Falls office or can have their mail delivered to their homes. Letter carriers for the area were already dispatched from the Glens Falls post office, and that won’t change.

Hundreds of people signed petitions against closing the South Glens Falls post office, and critics said the closing would be particularly hard on residents of the Midtown Apartments senior complex, which is within walking distance of the post office.

Losing a focal point

The effect of post-office closings on seniors has emerged as a theme in other communities as well.

Hoosick town Supervisor Keith Cipperly, who said town officials are “adamantly opposed” to closing the North Hoosick post office, said that for many seniors, the office is “not just a convenience but a comfort.”

Fram in Rupert and Joan Murray in Old Chatham also described their local post offices as places where people who might not have much other opportunity for human contact can meet daily.

Murray, who is leading the effort to keep the Old Chatham post office open, said many of the hamlet’s elderly residents walk to the post office to pick up their mail. The East Chatham post office, where their boxes would be transferred, is six miles away over a hilly road that features a narrow bridge and a poor-visibility intersection where it meets busy Route 295 in East Chatham, she said.

Losing the post office would also hurt businesses in Old Chatham that depend on postal customer traffic, Murray said.

Advocates for the small post offices question just how much money the Postal Service would save by closing them.

Fram said the Rupert post office’s lease is $300 per month. Given that the postal clerk in Rupert is part-time and receives no benefits, Fram questioned whether sending carriers out to deliver and pick up mail and packages would cost even more than maintaining the office.

And Murray’s search of public records showed that the lease on the East Chatham post office is $5,000 per month, while the Postal Service is paying only $800 a month for the Old Chatham facility. She wondered why the agency didn’t close the East Chatham office instead and save $4,200 per month.

Jenkins said the South Glens Falls facility, which offered only postal boxes and postal supplies, was actually making money. The office’s one employee will be transferred to the Glens Falls office, while the Postal Service will have to make extra deliveries and buy out the facility’s lease, he said.

“We’ll have an increase in costs by making this change,” Jenkins said.

Costs and benefits

Not every community is dead-set against consolidating post offices.

John Haverstock, the town manager in Pittsford, Vt., which includes Florence, said he’s heard no local opposition to the closure of the Florence post office. The town has another post office in the center of Pittsford. Local people are reacting “with a shrug and a knowing understanding that it might make sense to consolidate,” Haverstock said.

But in most places around the region where post offices are under threat, customers and community leaders are rallying against the change.

Cipperly said he’s contacted county, state and federal officials in an effort to fend off the threat to the North Hoosick office. The tiny post office survived a closure attempt in 1993, when it lost its postmaster, he recalled.

In Rupert, townspeople have the backing of the state’s congressional delegation.

“We’re continuing to work with the Postal Service to understand the justification for closure,” said David Carl, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.

“Senator Leahy and the rest of the Vermont delegation have had some success over the years in changing the Postal Service’s mind over individual closures,” Carl added. “But there have never been so many closures proposed at once.”

In South Glens Falls and Old Chatham, Jenkins and Murray said they suspect that the Postal Service had already made its decision even before the public had a chance to comment.

Jenkins said the final ruling for South Glens Falls was issued the same day as a public meeting organized by the Postal Service.

And Murray said the survey form sent to Old Chatham’s patrons had no place where residents could state how closure would hurt their community.

“It was just trying to say ‘you don’t need it there,’” Murray said. “It wasn’t a fair instrument.”

At a meeting with a postal official, “every objection we raised was dismissed,” she said.

But the fight is continuing.

“We plan to appeal to the next level,” said Richard Dorsey, a lawyer who uses the Old Chatham post office. “We’re not giving up.”

Defenders say the small post offices provide a vital service that more than justifies the cost.

“Postal service is very important,” Murray said. “It was not set up to be a money-maker. It’s there as a public service.”

And Smith, the retired Vermont postmaster, suggested the Postal Service is only hurting itself by pulling out of small communities.

“I think what’s happening is criminal,” she said. “In survey after survey, the Postal Service is the most trusted government agency in the country. The closings are causing a great deal of ill-will.”

The Internet is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, Smith went on.

“We’ve already had one terrorist attack in this country,” she said. “How do we know when we’ll need a government network that reaches every household?”









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