Postal official tells Shandaken hamlets it may have to cut hours

Postal service manager Neal Fitzpatrick faces Shandakenites. (photo by Violet Snow)

Postal service manager Neal Fitzpatrick faces Shandakenites. (photo by Violet Snow)

The Shandaken town board voted unanimously to authorize town supervisor Rob Stanley to write a letter to Congressman Chris Gibson, demanding that the postal service refrain from reducing hours at the Pine Hill, Highmount, and Big Indian post offices. The vote came at the August 4 town board meeting, following a one-hour public presentation and discussion with Neal Fitzpatrick, Manager of Post Office Operations for the Westchester District, addressing proposed service changes.

Cost-cutting options for the western Shandaken offices include halving the amount of time the facilities are open to four hours per day; eliminating the buildings and providing retail services through the rural delivery routes; and moving the services into local businesses that would allow an expansion of hours at a lower cost. The proposals were met with skepticism or hostility by many of the 30 or so attendees, with Jeffrey Laskow, husband of the Big Indian postmistress, urging the town board to take action to protect the offices.

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The postal service, which is not supported by taxes, faces a $10 billion deficit this year, due largely to the ubiquity of email. In order to reduce the annual shortfall, hours have been cut back at rural post offices over the past few years. In 2013, the Lake Hill and Mount Tremper post offices were cut to four hours per day of counter time, and Chichester is slated to make the same reduction. “I understand it’s a major change for some of us,” said Fitzpatrick. “We will do everything we can to make it seamless.”

Customers returned 35 percent of the surveys sent out to determine people’s opinions on the proposed changes. Of the 131 respondents, 86 percent preferred reduction of hours to the other options. Fitzpatrick said if the counters were reduced to four hours a day, lobbies would remain open the usual eight hours, providing access to post office boxes, with provisions for packages to be picked up “as best we can.”

One audience member asked how post office employees would be affected by the changes. “There will be no effect on rural delivery,” replied Fitzpatrick. “The savings will come from labor costs, and we’ve offered postmasters incentive to retire if they’re eligible. We’ve left a number of jobs vacant around the district for a landing spot if they don’t want to retire. We try very hard not to lay anyone off.” He regretted that local postmasters, if they elected to continue working, would have to travel to their new jobs but said, “I guess that’s part of the American way. Look at the George Washington Bridge. How many people commute to work?”

“Is the ultimate goal to have part-time workers with few or no benefits?” asked an attendee.

“Our plan is to save money,” said Fitzpatrick. “Yes, that’s part of the plan, but you’d be surprised how many people who are retired like the idea of working part-time at a nice job, a clean job.”

“I think that part of the plan stinks,” replied the questioner.

Fitzpatrick defended the goals of the postal service, mentioning that when the Mount Tremper office was damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Irene, administrators could have taken the opportunity to close the office, but instead the structure was renovated and reopened. “We take pride in being in people’s communities,” he said. “We try to do the best we can. It’s not just a place to buy stamps — it’s a community identity issue.”

 

Maximum effectiveness

Finally Laskow spoke at length. He quoted postal regulations stating that “the Post Office shall provide a maximum degree of effective service to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” Emphasizing that rural post offices are not expected to make money, he suggested the town board request that Gibson petition the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) “to open a docket to review the language ‘maximum effectiveness’…and to put a hold on any discontinuances or changes until the PRC rules.”

Fitzgerald closed the meeting by stating, “We’ll look at the operating hours, the internal decisions, and the external feedback. You’ll get a notice 30 days in advance of any changes.” He said his district has altered hours at 50 rural post offices already, without major problems.

The presentation was immediately followed by the town board meeting, at which Stanley proposed writing a letter to Gibson, also pointing out, “The loss of the post office was the death knell of the commercial district in Oliverea. The post office is an information source throughout the town.” The board voted unanimously to comply with Laskow’s suggestion.

George Christian, a Gibson staff member, was present. After the board voted, he said that people’s comments would be conveyed to the Congressman, adding, “We are listening to people and working to try to get what you’re looking for.” Christian observed that when the postal service recently attempted to cancel Saturday delivery, the opposition of customers led to the Congressional decision to reverse the cancellation.

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