Post office closings worry many in W.Va.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Postmaster Brenda Sparks knows she's going to lose her job soon, but that isn't what upsets her the most. On Friday, Sparks greeted each person by name as visitors dropped off and picked up mail at Hugheston's red-white-and-blue striped post office that's housed in a trailer in eastern Kanawha County.
"Local post offices are to make people get together and learn what's going on in the community and to socialize," Sparks said. "This is my community, too. I think there are other ways cuts can be done."
The Hugheston Post Office is one of 149 in West Virginia that the U.S. Postal Service will review for potential closure. About 85 of those locations are in the Southern part of the state. So far, 14 post offices have closed in the state, according to savethepostoffice.com.
When the Postal Service initially made the announcement in July, 150 post offices in West Virginia were on the list, but the office in the city of Stephenson, Wyoming County, has since been removed from the list, said Cathy Yarosky, spokeswoman for the Postal Service.
More than 3,600 retail postal facilities nationwide, mostly in rural areas, will be considered for closure, based on a study that measures factors such as need and community input.
On Dec. 13, the Postal Service agreed to delay further post office closings until May 15 in response to a group of senators asking them to add language to legislation that would halt closings for six months.
"These post offices have a social value," said Ruth Goldway, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission [PRC], an independent government entity created by Congress to oversee the Postal Service. "Unfortunately, the Postal Service can't operate on social value. The communities operate on social value."
Before a post office is considered for closure, a number of criteria go into that decision, including hosting community meetings, Yarosky said. At the public meetings, Postal Service officials discuss a town's specific concerns and needs regarding its post office, she said.
"Would a Village Post Office be feasible for your particular town? Should we install collection boxes outside of your post office? It's a case-by-case basis. It's not a one-size-fits-all communication," Yarosky said.
Goldway, though, said the Postal Service has ignored the community's suggestions. Those who attend the community meetings think the Postal Service is not considering their opinion, she said. To save the Postal Service money, residents have suggested community fundraising to help pay the post office's rent, closing the office a few days per week, and deciding which post offices, if any, should stay open, she said.
"Those are the issues communities have raised in community meetings, and the Postal Service has not taken those into consideration," Goldway said Friday. "It's possible that they will take those into consideration and they could better explain why they are closing [a post office]."
At the community meeting for the Hugheston post office, Sparks said a good turnout of about 80 people stirred a heated discussion because "some felt like their questions weren't being answered."
At the small town's community meeting, Theodore Berry, who owns the trailer the post office resides in, offered to freeze the rent for the next 10 years to prevent the office from closing. Everyone at the meeting clapped for Berry, she said, although they haven't heard a response from the Postal Service about his offer.
About 10 miles away in the coal-mining town of Mammoth, Officer in Charge Andrea Lyons said only 30 people showed up for their community meeting, a group that should have been at least three times that size. Those who did attend expressed their concerns for the elderly. Many people don't have cars, let alone access to cellphone service or the Internet. One local man walks a mile to the post office to pick up his mail every day at 8 a.m., Lyons said, while some residents are in wheelchairs so mail carriers deliver prescriptions to their front door.
"They don't want the post office to close. They're pretty much outraged about it," Lyons said Friday. "They feel like there's nothing they can do, and they hope Congress will make a change."
Without a change, Lyons fears the worst for the small town.
"It's going to make Mammoth nonexistent at some point," she said.
The community meetings haven't been a waste of time, though, Goldway said, because the Postal Service has responded to members of Congress and delayed closings. However, the Postmaster General said a second round of community meetings is going to be held at the nearly 3,600 post offices that have had meetings without a definitive decision made, she said.
"There will be a second community meeting and considerations of other ways to serve rural communities that are remote," Goldway said. "It's certainly possible for the Postal Service to go back and review every single one of these cases."
Members of West Virginia's congressional delegation are pushing for a change to help keep post offices in rural parts of the state open. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the mid-May closing delay temporarily protects tens of thousands of jobs, including more than 160 in the Mountain State.
"I pushed for the moratorium to give everyone more time to find solutions that protect jobs and fix the Postal Service. Keeping all of our West Virginia post offices and mail processing facilities open another six months is welcome news to me and so many in our state," he said in an email on Friday. "Closing post offices means lost jobs and slow service, and that hurts West Virginians, especially in rural communities."
Based on a study released Dec. 23 by the PRC, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., recommended Tuesday that the Postal Service go back to the drawing board on its efforts to close postal facilities in the state. In the study, the PRC found that the Postal Service could not provide the data necessary for the commission to verify the potential savings that the Postal Service claimed. Rahall, who has opposed post office closings, said they were "overly optimistic savings projections."
"There's no way to confirm the Postal Service's projections of saving $200 million," Goldway said. "It is on the record that there's conflicting estimates of how much the Postal Service could save."
An economist analyzed the cost and savings available to the Postal Service and, at his best guess, they might save $100 million by closing 3,600 post offices nationwide, Goldway said.
Rahall's suggestion that the Postal Service go back to the drawing board is definitely possible, Goldway said. Participating in the community meetings and making sure every voice counts is crucial for the Postal Service to hear residents' perspective, Rahall said in an email Friday.
"I am hopeful that with better data and more of a focus on community needs, the Postal Service will realize that our post offices in West Virginia ought not be closed," Rahall wrote in an email.
The Postal Service is predicted to lose a record $14.1 billion this year, a result of a revolutionary communication system that is changing every day, Goldway said. The role of mail is less important than it used to be, she said. One reason for the USPS financial problems is the steep decline in first-class mail volume, Yarosky said.
"Back in 2006, that was our peak year. We reached an all-time high of 213 billion pieces [of mail]. Now that dropped to 167 billion pieces in 2010," Yarosky said. "That drop continues and we do not anticipate that volume to come back. We have lost that to the diversion of electronic mail."
The PRC also identified an "insufficient attention to community needs" by the Postal Service, according to Rahall. The Commission noted that a Postal Service program that identifies more than 3,600 post offices and facilities for possible closure was insufficient. One weakness of the current program -- known as the Retail Access Optimization Initiative -- is the absence of internal reviews that should occur after a post office is closed, according to the study.
"The commission recommends that the Postal Service conduct reviews of past [post office] discontinuance decisions to identify best practices and areas for further improvements," according to the study.
Clara Coleman has used the small post office in Mammoth for 43 years to buy stamps, money orders and send mail. Coleman helped organize the community meeting by collecting signed petitions, an effort she hopes makes an impact.
"When you lose your post office, you're not accounted for," she said. "I just hate to see it close, for myself and for the elderly."
Reach Megan Workman at email@example.com or 304-348-5113.