When Leftie homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing moved to rural Vermont in the 1930s, one of their goals was to try to organize their neighbors politically. As they recount in their memoir The Good Life, they failed, but they did witness a monumental coming together of the residents of Pikes Falls when the government tried to save money by discontinuing the local postal route in 1945. Town meetings and a ferocious letter-writing campaign led to restoration of postal service to the 14 families on the mountainous route.
The Nearings note that Vermont Congressman Charles A. Plumley told the House of Representatives that the “Post Office Department’s…motto should be ‘service’ not ‘profit’.”
With the Chichester post office currently on a list for planned cutting of services, postmaster Sharon Umhey echoed Plumley’s sentiments, commenting, “I can see any other business that loses money wouldn’t keep its doors open, but this is a service. The Army doesn’t make money — why don’t we shut down the Army?”
The U.S. Postal Service announced on December 5 that it plans to close 252 mail processing centers, resulting in a virtual elimination of next-day service and an end to Saturday service. Mail that used to take one day to arrive would now take two to three days. Approximately 25,000 workers would be laid off, in the expectation of saving $2.1 billion annually.
On December 13, a moratorium was placed on the new provisions until May 15, 2012, at the request of federal legislators. Local Congressman Maurice Hinchey is among those sponsoring the Postal Service Protection Act, which, according to the representative’s website, would “fix the Postal Service’s immediate financial crisis by allowing the USPS to recover the overpayments it made to its retiree pension funds…In addition, the bill would eliminate the unique requirement that the USPS pre-fund 75 years worth of future retiree health benefits in just 10 years. No other agency is required to pre-fund these benefits.”
The postal service, which is not tax-supported, would also be permitted to find new ways of generating revenue, such as providing notary and digital services, shipping wine and beer, and contracting with state and local agencies to provide (unspecified) services.
Other provisions of the proposed law would prevent closing of rural post offices, even if they aren’t making a profit, and “protect six-day delivery and protect mail-processing facilities by requiring strict standards for delivering first-class mail.”
Keeps communities connected
Umhey, who was expecting a pink slip for Christmas, hopes the bill will pass before the moratorium expires, but meanwhile, she and her customers are on edge. In tiny Chichester, with no library, no restaurants, and no stores, the post office serves as a community center, said hamlet resident Jen Dragon, stopping in for her mail.
“I think it’s a mistake to close small-town post offices,” said Dragon. “You start eroding things that keep communities connected. And in emergencies, they’re indispensable.”
After Hurricane Irene, for instance, “everyone came flocking to the post office for information,” said Umhey. Shandaken supervisor Rob Stanley posted a sign on the front of the building with emergency information.
“We’re going to lose the town if we lose the post office,” commented Katherine Reich. “I found my house through this post office. If it wasn’t for the last postmistress, I wouldn’t be living here.”
Bill Caton is worried about the impact on his home-based business. At an informational meeting organized by the postal service to inform residents about the change, he was told he could keep his post office box and his address, although the boxes will be moved to the Phoenicia office, two miles down the valley.
“Are they planning to build an addition onto the Phoenicia post office?” wondered Caton. “We’re up in limbo. I’ve had a PO box here for 65 years.”
Umhey, who has worked at local post offices for 28 years, also lives in Chichester. “I’m not just looking at losing my job,” she said. “I don’t want to see our town lose its identity.”
She noted the important role postal employees can play in the lives of their customers. Her father, for instance, was postmaster in Mount Tremper, where one of his customers was a woman who took care of a brother with dementia. “One day the sister fell and broke her hip,” says Umhey. “When they didn’t pick up their mail for a few days, my dad went and found her lying on the floor and her brother just sitting in a chair. He saved their lives.”
Dragon added, “Sharon also functions as a psychologist, like a bartender — she maintains peace in the community. The post office serves a lot of human needs.”++