Friday, November 11, 2011

Post office observations

No exit for post offices? We can only wish.

Rural America is a necessity to a healthy United States and world. It's easy to stereotype the small town (currently, 4% of the cities in Kansas are 15,000 or larger) but Kansas and other rural states would be empty without them. It's time to find some alternative solutions to the crisis facing rural Kansas. This blog overviews the issue but what it's really about is making a case for finding solutions. What idea will be our "internet"?

Great thinkers once solved issues for the good of the whole

The history below shows how great thinkers saw the need to connect people in the country with those in the cities in order to make a better America. New communication systems led to the need for advanced roads and transportation systems.

"John Wanamaker of Pennsylvania was the first Postmaster General to advocate rural free delivery (RFD). Although funds were appropriated a month before he left office in 1893, subsequent Postmasters General dragged their feet on inaugurating the new service so that it was 1896 before the first experimental rural delivery routes began.

A byproduct of rural free delivery was the stimulation it provided to the development of the great American system of roads and highways. A prerequisite for rural delivery was good roads.

The impact of RFD as a cultural and social agent for millions of Americans was even more striking, and, in this respect, rural delivery still is a vital link between industrial and rural America."

General observations about the closure study process

Inconsistencies. It's unclear why some communities are on this list and not others. Most of the offices on the list of possible closures are rural, smaller offices with annual revenues of about $27,000 or less. In fact, at one location one business does $50,000 worth of business a year at the post office and, still, the post office is on the block.

Fairness. In some cases the notice of the community meeting happened within a day or two of the meeting. In other cases, neighboring postmasters were asked to facilitate the meeting.

Delivery. In most cases, it sounds like residents will be asked to erect mail boxes at their homes for delivery but if a package doesn't fit in the box they'll have to travel to the closest town with a post office to retrieve the package -- in some cases this ranges from 10-30 miles. Does this really save money if a route carrier now has to deliver mail to each house instead of making a drop at one post office? Some towns have been told they'll have to drive to the next town to even pick up their regular mail. Again, this ranges from 10-30 miles for some.

Why rural?

Reasonable. We have to be reasonable. Volume of mail is down with the use of other means of communication. But it seems like rural is the fall guy for issues out of our control:

"Taken from "5 things you need to know about the U.S. Postal Service."
Operationally speaking, the USPS nets profits every year. The financial problem it faces now comes from a 2006 Congressional mandate that requires the agency to “pre-pay” into a fund that covers health care costs for future retired employees. Under the mandate, the USPS is required to make an annual $5.5 billion payment over ten years, through 2016. These “prepayments” are largely responsible for the USPS’s financial losses over the past four years and the threat of shutdown that looms ahead – take the retirement fund out of the equation, and the postal service would have actually netted $1 billion in profits over this period.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the USPS’s financial situation is good. Revenue has been declining for years, and even if the agency manages to get past this year’s $5.5 billion payment, it would again face insolvency next year."

Easy target. Rural communities are an easy target. Even if 75% or more of the population turns out for the required community meeting, these numbers, in the larger scheme of things, are small. Because rural communities aren't organized as a collective, it's hard to have a voice loud enough to be heard.

Does it matter? Legislators and United States Congressmen/women have been supportive to varying degrees (special thanks to Senator Moran) but is anyone stepping back and looking at the whole picture of what the loss of 150-400 post offices in the state will do to the strength of Kansas as a vital place to live and do business? This isn't just about losing the post office but this threat contributes to the devolving of rural communities.

It's not just the post office. The potential loss of the post office is another strike at the identity of a community. The school may already be gone, a source of identity. Now the post office. Though the zip code can be kept and the name of the town can still be put on letters, there is still the effect of losing your identity.

Making the argument

As we (rural) await the verdict, we are concerned about the change in essential service and what it will mean to each individual, but the worry is more about what this means for the community. The post office is a gathering place, a place to put notices, a place to do business, a place to receive prescriptions, a place for human interaction.

It's true that it is simply time for some post offices to close. Even the townspeople know when it's time. But in other cases, it just doesn't make any sense. Even with the acknowledgement that mailing a bill and sending a birthday greeting can be done exclusively via electronic means, there is still a lot of business being done through the mail. Furthermore, some communities still do not have high speed internet nor decent cell service to make other means of communication a good option.

But here's the thing. Like so many issues, this one is treated as if in a vacuum. Agencies are managing a single issue yet the community is affected by multiple issues and how each one rearranges the bigger picture.

What can we do now?

Many of the towns on this list of 152 are not ready to fold up and die no matter what happens with the post office issue. They may look pretty straggly to those looking in from the outside who aren't familiar with rural living but there is likely more sense of community and economic livelihood going on than can be seen with a windshield survey. In some cases, the farmers and ranchers drive that economic engine and they and their families rely on the community for many basics.

Instead of just fighting the post office closures, let's try to also look at this in a forward-looking manner. The primary loss of the physical post office would be the ease in sending anything bigger than a letter and the ability for an individual or business to receive items bigger than their mail box. The secondary loss is the post office as a social gathering spot.

Can both of these issues be solved with creative solutions? In simplest terms, what is needed is a generic gathering spot that results in these same interactions and a central and accessible location to handle the larger mail issues.

Though 152 communities are on the list, there are another 150 that will likely have service altered. With almost half of the towns in the state affected by a loss of or change in postal service, a common solution needs to be developed. Most communities are fighting the post office closure as well as they can within the rules. But if they had an adequate alternative, they could look at all of this with more optimism.

What is that alternative? It's out there. It's a matter of getting the right minds together to figure out the solution. We need the brightest minds of all ages who want to be part of the solution in transforming rural communities into a New Rural age with old-time community soul.

Signing off from Get Kansas!

KE #2 Marci Penner


Barbara said...

Reading was never on the list until our town was heavily destroyed by an E3 tornado May 21. This post office already served Admire delivery, Miller, Reading and the northern half of the city of Lebo along with all of the countryside from Hwy 56 to Hwy50.
There were 250 boxes and 69 P O Boxes in Reading. NOT a small town post office, just a matter of convenience.

Unknown said...

I don't think it will be too long until we will be talking about virtual offices for post offices. It won't be long until they get rid of handlers all together expect for delivery ofcourse