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Keep postal presence in smallest towns
You just have to admire the rhetorical acrobatics required to describe the closure of 3,600 post offices as part of an “expanded access” program.
This is sort of like letting the air out of your car’s tires and calling it an “enhanced transportation technique.”
Yet “expanded access” is the term that’s associated with the U.S. Postal Service’s proposal, announced last week, to close as many as 3,600, mainly rural, post offices.
That list, released last week, includes four offices in Baker County: Unity, Hereford, Durkee and Oxbow.
Postal Service officials say they haven’t made any decisions, and that no offices will close until late this year at the earliest.
The Postal Service — which by the way has not received tax dollars for more than 25 years although it gets quite attractive federal loans — lays out a pretty convincing financial case for its proposal.
The agency’s mail volume has dropped by 20 percent the past four years, a trend obviously driven by the increasing use of email, text messaging and social networking websites.
The bottom line is that the Postal Service lost $8.5 billion in fiscal 2010.
The small rural offices that dominate the list of possible closures are a relatively small part of the problem — closing all of them would save an estimated $200 million. That’s slightly more than 2 percent of the Postal Service’s total loss last year.
But neither do these offices offer much in the way of solutions to the agency’s debt crisis. The vast majority of these offices have annual revenues of less than $27,500, so it’s not likely that a boom in business will suddenly turn them into profit-makers.
We weren’t surprised that many rural residents across America, including Baker County, were upset about the Postal Service’s announcement last week.
In addition to worrying that they’ll have to drive longer distances to get their mail (many rural offices have post office boxes, but don’t actually deliver mail), people have pointed out that post offices serve as de facto community halls.
Both are valid concerns.
If both Hereford and Unity post offices closed, for instance, Burnt River Valley residents would be left without a single post office (the one in Bridgeport closed a few years ago).
Durkee residents might have to drive to Huntington, 20 miles away, or to Baker City, 25 miles, to get their mail.
We’re intrigued, then, by comments from Postal Service officials that their solution to closing rural offices might be to set up so-called “village post offices.”
This is the “expanded access” part.
The idea is to offer limited postal services — no certified mail or sending odd-sized packages — in a local business to replace the closed post office.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the village post office concept could help keep rural stores afloat.
“Many of these general stores are hanging on for dear life out there,” Donahoe said. “They can take the money we give them to pay the rent and pay the light bill. We think it’s a real win-win proposal.”
Shifting postal services from an office to a store would avoid the dilemma of forcing people to drive farther to get their mail.
And in many tiny towns the store is at least as much of a gathering place as the post office is (also, you can’t buy beer at any post office).
On the other hand, we’re skeptical about how much money the Postal Service can save if its response to closing the post office in places such as Oxbow and Unity is to pay a local business to do the work instead.
Ultimately, the Postal Service’s goal should be to maximize its cost savings while minimizing the effect on its customers.
But please, don’t call the results “expanded access.”