Bigelow reacts to possible P.O. closure
BIGELOW -- With more and more people communicating via email, Facebook and Twitter, paying their utility bills online and filing tax returns over the Internet, the U.S. Postal Service is in dire straits.
It has lost money in each of the past five years, cut 110,000 jobs through attrition over the last four years and put a freeze on executive salaries.
Now, still operating in the red, the USPS is turning its attention to the nation's 32,000-plus post offices and looking to cut operating expenses.
Bigelow, home to approximately 235 residents in southern Nobles County, is among 110 post offices across Minnesota and western Wisconsin identified for closure. Nationwide, the USPS is proposing to close 3,600 post offices.
During a public hearing Wednesday night at the Bigelow Fire Hall, nearly 60 concerned residents listened to the USPS plan for their future mail delivery, offered concerns about the loss of their post office and asked if there was anything more they could do to keep the service in their town.
Margaret Campbell, post office review coordinator from Minneapolis, was on hand to present the facts and respond to questions, but said she has no input on whether Bigelow's post office will remain in business.
She said the list of proposed closures was developed by Postal Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and based strictly on revenue and workload.
In Bigelow, the retail revenue in 2010 was $17,727, while the cost of operating the post office was approximately $86,300. The annual expenses included $78,500 in employee salary and benefits, $4,300 for building rent, $1,300 in utilities and $1,200 in transportation costs to the USPS.
"The workload at Bigelow has declined to the point where there's 1.5 hours of (recordable) work there a day," Campbell said. "Brenda (Paplow, Bigelow postmaster) can't make people come into the post office. She's there eight hours a day. We have a trained, very capable employee we could use elsewhere. We're looking at matching our employees with work elsewhere."
P.O. boxes to
Campbell said if the Bigelow Post Office is shuttered -- the entire process could take up to five months -- residents who get their mail at the Bigelow Post Office will be asked to install mailboxes like those used for rural delivery. The rural route driver who delivers mail to Bigelow comes from Worthington, and would deliver to all the people who currently have post office boxes.
Shifting from post office boxes to rural mailboxes in Bigelow will save the USPS approximately $72,000 per year, she said.
If people would prefer not to have a mailbox, they could get a post office box in a neighboring community like Worthington. However, Campbell said the rural carrier can offer all of the services available at the post office.
"(She) does everything you can get at a post office, only she does it out of her car," Campbell said of the rural carrier. "She can sell you stamps, help you mail packages, sell money orders, insure packages and certify letters."
Asked one resident, "If a post office on wheels is so great and wonderful, why doesn't everyone do it?"
Campbell replied that post offices are still needed in higher traffic areas, but are not cost-effective in some communities. She said everyone with a computer can also access postal services online at www.usps.com.
"Another option is the Village Post Office (VPO), a mini post office run by a local business that would be authorized to sell stamps and accept packages," Campbell said.
The VPO option would allow customers to retain their post office box, but a business must be willing to provide the space and be open regular hours at least five days a week. Also, the business can not sell alcohol, which would rule out the local bar.
As of Tuesday, the 60-day public posting proposing the closure of the Bigelow Post Office was made official. During this posting period, residents may provide written comment to the USPS regarding the plan. All comments may be submitted to the Bigelow postmaster to be forwarded to postal headquarters.
Once the 60-day posting is completed and all correspondence reviewed by lower-level postal management, a decision will be made by senior-level postal management. Then, there will be a 30-day public posting announcing the final decision of the USPS.
The discontinuation of services at Bigelow Post Office could not begin sooner than 60 days after the original date of the final decision.
"Headquarters is the only one that can make a decision, based on the data and all of your input," Campbell said.
At minimum, she estimated it would take four to five months for a decision to be made about the Bigelow facility.
So far, only three studies have been stopped, while most of the remaining 110 post offices proposed for closure are still going through the process.
Campbell said the proposed closures aren't just impacting small towns. There are nine post offices in metro areas of the Twin Cities, Mankato and Duluth that are also being studied for possible closure.
Nobles County Commissioner and rural Bigelow resident David Benson questioned the post office's proposal to close the Bigelow facility. He said the state has invested millions of dollars in a four-lane expansion project that skirts Bigelow, and the community was one of only two in the county to show an increase in population -- by two residents -- in the latest census.
"The city has invested in sewer and water -- the community has the potential for growth," Benson said. "I hope this is data that will influence the decision. Bigelow is poised to grow. It's an indication of hope for the community."
He asked if there was potential for compromise, such as operating the post office at reduced hours to still serve the residents.
Campbell said the idea of reduced hours is something that is raised in every community that is slated to lose their post office.
"The fact is we would still have to pay for the building, the utilities and the person to drive here," she responded. "When it's less than two hours of work, it becomes inefficient."
"I just feel there's got to be some kind of compromise that will work, rather than put boxes up and down every street," said Bigelow Mayor Bryan Brandt. He spoke of the large community post office box in Reading, and Campbell said there could be cluster boxes in Bigelow if that was what residents wanted. Campbell encouraged consideration of the VPO option.
Eye to the future
Campbell said that nine post offices in the Minnesota-western Wisconsin territory will close their doors in the next three weeks, and many more will likely be closed after the public comment periods end over the course of the next several months. She said she could not guarantee there wouldn't be more rounds of closures in the future.
"Society has changed, and we need to change with it," she said.
The USPS requested Congress approve a drop from six-day-a-week delivery to five days in hopes of saving money, but Congress has refused to act on the request in each of the past four years. At the same time, Congress -- through the Postal Enhancement and Accountability Act of 2006 -- is requiring the USPS to prepay the next 75 years worth of retiree health benefits. The requirement is costing the USPS $5.5 billion annually, and is the primary reason the postal service is operating in the red.
"We've been doing a lot in the last five years to cut costs," Campbell said. "We've eliminated a lot of layers, consolidated mail processing facilities and (decreased costs for) transportation by doing this."
Despite all of the cost-cutting measures, the USPS was not able to make its $5.5 billion payment to Congress recently. It's unsure whether the payment will be made by the extended deadline.
"Come November, we may actually have to file bankruptcy," Campbell said. "Will we still deliver mail? Yes."
She said the USPS would have enough money to pay its employees for mail delivery through 2012.