Facing what one official described as financial “dire straights,” the U.S. Postal Service is considering closures at rural branches in Hamilton, Maybell, Slater and Dixon as well as Savery, Wyo.
USPS is conducting discontinuing studies at 71 post offices in Colorado. Forty-one Wyoming branches are under consideration, as well.
The post office in Craig, located at 555 Pershing St., is not on the list of USPS sites being considered for shutdown.
Marcela Rivera, post office review coordinator for the Colorado/Wyoming District, explained some of the USPS difficulties during a public meeting Tuesday night at the Hamilton Community Center.
“As you all already know, the post office is in dire straights,” Rivera told more than 40 people at the Hamilton meeting. “We have to take drastic action to curb our costs and manage our debt.”
During the Hamilton meeting, Rivera explained the circumstances behind the postal service’s financial problems.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the postal service was seeing big upward trends, she said. USPS added more than a million new customers, and began reporting income to the federal government for the first time.
In response, Rivera said Congress passed legislation requiring the postal service to invest additional income in employees, stating that the organization was to emphasize public service and was never intended to turn a profit.
Rivera said USPS is the only organization in the country, public or private, mandated by the federal government to set aside employee benefit and retirement funds before it receives revenue.
USPS must also provide funds for employees far from retirement age and health care money for employees who haven’t been hired yet.
In hindsight, Rivera said, the Congressional act was short-sighted because it was based on a short period of growth, was not based on percentages and did not include an option out clause should the postal service find itself in a downturn.
In 2006, USPS hit that downturn. After years of unprecedented growth, the postal service began a period of equally unprecedented decline.
In the last five years, Rivera said first class mail volume, the postal service’s “bread and butter,” has dropped by more than 50 percent. In addition, USPS has seen a significant reduction in retail sales, revenue and overall customer demand.
Because of the decline, Rivera said USPS incurred $8 billion in debt during fiscal year 2010 and is expecting another $10 billion in fiscal year 2011.
Yet because of the federal act passed, USPS is still required to prepay its employee benefits, which Rivera said costs the postal service $5.5 billion annually.
Rivera told Hamilton residents USPS has already asked Congress for the flexibility to manage its own benefits program. It has also asked Congress to move from a six- to a five-day delivery system, which could save the postal service $3.3 billion in costs each year.
Rivera said those changes could save rural post offices across the land. However, since Congress must approve adjustments, Rivera could not comment on when legislators will be able to address the issue, if at all.
In the meantime, Rivera said the Postal Regulatory Commission has directed employees to conduct discontinuing studies around the country on whether to keep or close certain full-service post offices.
Postmaster Clifford Carter has worked in Craig since September 2010.
“When I took the test in Tulsa, I took it with 2,000 other people,” Clifford said. “I’ve had two vacancies available (in Craig) for several weeks, and I haven’t even received one application.”
When he took his position in Craig, Carter managed a staff of 15 people. In the last year he has lost two carriers, one to retirement and another to sick leave.
Since the vacancies opened, Carter has been pounding the pavement delivering mail with the rest of his staff in an effort to maintain service.
But, he said that’s fine with him because Carter is a professional postman. He began his career as a mail carrier and served in that capacity for 10 years. From there, he moved up the ladder, serving as a facility manager in his hometown before moving to Craig.
“The people who work here are great,” Carter said. “In Tulsa, I managed over 100 employees. I have 13 here and my guys are working 10 or 12 hours a day just to make sure people are getting their mail.”
Carter said the challenges facing the postal service are not only technological, but also generational.
He concedes that the post office’s main competition is the Internet, which allows people to pay bills online and has contributed to the significant drop in first-class mail volume.
However, Carter doesn’t believe the post office is in its current position simply because the majority of people no longer pay bills through the mail.
“There was a time when the average American could expect to receive a handwritten letter about once every two weeks,” Carter said. “Young people today probably write two handwritten notes every year.”
USPS has identified 3,563 branches to be studied, which all bring in less than $27,000 a year in revenue and are located primarily in rural communities.
Rivera told the Hamilton meeting attendees that their full service post office may be replaced by highway mailboxes, which a rural mail carrier would service; centrally located cluster boxes; or unmanned post offices that would not provide retail services.
Hamilton residents voiced a number of concerns with the alternatives, including that Hamilton is a ranching community and the post office serves customers in an estimated area of 240 square miles.
Colorado Republican Representatives Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner stated concerns this week to Ruth Goldway, chairwoman of the Postal Regulatory Commission.
The Congressmen have taken a particular interest in post offices of late because 61 of the 71 branches slated for closure in Colorado are in their Third and Fourth U.S. Congressional Districts.
Rivera said during the Hamilton meeting that current studies are nothing more than studies at this point and no final decisions will be made “for a year or a year-and-a-half.”
One advantage Hamilton has is that the local post office is heated and that a likely recommendation will be to keep it with an unmanned status.
Regardless of the future of the postal service, Carter said he loves his job and is proud of the work he has done over the course of his career.
“It’s been good to me,” Carter said. “It has afforded me the opportunity to travel and to live in a place as beautiful as Colorado.”
Carter’s wife, Laura, serves as the postmaster in Maybell. A public meeting to discuss the fate of that branch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Maybell Elementary School, 30 Haynes Ave.
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