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TMCNet:  Fate of post office signed, sealed, still open to deliver

[February 11, 2013]

Fate of post office signed, sealed, still open to deliver

Feb 11, 2013 (Centre Daily Times (State College - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Thirty-two people showed up at the Huston Township Community Center the other night.

Many were worried.

Their Julian post office was on a United States Postal Service nationwide list of small branches being considered for service changes, including the possibility of closure. The agency had sent out a survey to 1,085 customers, outlining the options and seeking preferences, and now a representative was on hand to clarify the future.


He delivered some good news: Julian will keep its post office, preserving 171 years of history.

Window service will shrink by two hours daily, the dullest proposed cut. The Mingoville post office, in contrast, will lose four hours a day, and the Lamar post office's window will shed six.

But they'll all remain open.

It's no secret the Postal Service's woes continue. Saddled with billions in debt, the cash-strapped agency has seen a sharp drop in mail volume from the rise in online communication.

That led to last week's decision to end Saturday mail delivery, except for packages, and possibly save an estimated $2 billion.

Even the Postal Service's remaining business has evolved. These days, about 30 percent of postal transactions occur outside traditional post offices -- online, for example, or at branches in supermarkets or big box stores.

Given its troubles, the agency easily could take draconian steps, shuttering post offices like it did in Pleasant Gap in early 2011. That year, it announced a list of offices being studied for possible closure.

Public opposition convinced the agency to pursue another tack.

It's now instead surveying communities and trying to keep as many post offices as possible open by reducing window service hours.

"There was a lot of pushback through political venues to stop that process," said Joseph Scherder, the post office operations manager who came to Julian, about the earlier closure strategy. "This was an alternative to that." From a corporate perspective, it may not be the most ruthless knife needed, though Scherder said window service reductions could yield about $500 million in savings, mostly through switches to part-time employees.

Some might argue the Postal Service isn't using its head by not closing offices outright. But it's showing some heart. Its choice reflects a recognition that post offices count for more than revenue, that they're not just retail outlets.

Even with rural delivery, they're often an ingrained part of communities' identities. They give a separate ZIP code. Many in small towns still serve as hubs, where notices cover bulletin boards and residents chitchat with the postmaster and each other.

The opposite of cookie-cutter franchises, they offer local charm. In Port Matilda, schoolchildren decorate the lobby's Christmas tree every year. In Julian, village photos with little histories attached decorate the lobby walls.

In a rapidly changing world, post offices and mail carriers remain icons of Americana, a constant across generations.

Previous fixtures of our society have vanished, largely unmourned. When online and direct mail movie services killed video stores, we hardly blinked. We readily patronize the chain book and hardware stores that buried the mom-and-pops.

And who grieves for the demise of pay phones, except perhaps fans of old movie thrillers Post offices may be anachronisms in our electronic age, but there's still a romantic attachment to them. Julian's postal customers apparently feel it.

About a third responded to the survey. While that doesn't sound like a lot, Scherder said it's a typical return for small post office service areas with many rural delivery customers, who may not care about their branch's fate as much as patrons who pick up their mail.

But of the respondents, 83 percent voted for a "realignment of hours," with just 3 percent opting for discontinuing service altogether. The community center turnout also showed support. Scherder considered it a large crowd, compared to many of his other community meetings.

Wherever Scherder has gone, regardless of meeting turnouts, the studies have been consistent. No communities have "overwhelmingly" chosen to close their post offices, he said. The Postal Service may have to drop the ax on some anyway, if it can't right its ship by consolidating sorting centers and doing other cost-saving measures.

But the fact that the agency is holding off the chops for now, possibly at the expense of more savings, means it's listening to its customers -- as a business should.

"Some people feel we're really downsizing," Scherder said. "But what we're doing is right-sizing." Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

___ (c)2013 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) Visit the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.) at www.centredaily.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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