Locals fume at cuts to post office hours

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February 21, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Grumbling about the Postal Service — its bloat, its inefficiency, its pension-rich workers — is probably as old as the service itself. Try to subtract a post office from a small farm town, however, and watch how swiftly its residents embrace it.
In May 2012, facing a desperate headwind — in the form of multi-billion dollar shortfalls — the United States Postal Service introduced austerity measures into the rural postal system under a program called “Post Plan.” The driving idea behind Post Plan was that by reducing the hours of operation at 13,000 rural post offices nationwide, the USPS could avoid — or at least forestall — shuttering these buildings permanently.
According to the Postal Service, the program will produce savings of $500 million per year.
The recent local impact of the change means that traveling along U.S. 54 on a weekday afternoon you won’t find an open post office between Fort Scott and Iola. Uniontown, Bronson, Moran, LaHarpe and Gas have all been subjected to reduced hours.

IN LATE 2011 a representative from the USPS appeared before the residents of Piqua, whose small post office was primed for discontinuation, and lectured the already dispirited crowd: “No one is trying to take anything from rural America [but] some of the initiative falls on you.” Buy stamps, he told them, and send mail; use your local P.O.; make an effort. The message was repeated in similar meetings across rural Kansas over the next few years.
Here’s what an effort looks like in LaHarpe:  Harry Lee, the owner of LaHarpe Communications — which is within shouting distance of the local post office — has gone out of his way to invite inconvenience and unnecessary expense onto himself as a way of supporting the post office he’s been using for more than 60 years.
“The company that does our customer billing is actually in Minnesota,” Lee said. “They would do metered postage on those bills and send them from there, but that would be detrimental to the local economy, whether it’s LaHarpe or Allen County. So, we have them UPS the bills to us, then we take them over to the post office here, then they go ahead and put stamps on them. So they mail from here, and our post office gets credit for them.
“It’s an extra expense but it’s one of those things you have to do to support your local economy.”
Around the corner, at TLC Garden Center, co-owner Savannah Flory also tries as best she can to adjust to the inconvenience of a.m.-only hours. “We try to send packages through there whenever we can, and we buy stamps there. I try to use it as much as possible, just to support our in-town post office, so we don’t lose it…. With the half-day, you have to make sure you either take the mail in the morning or, if there’s something that needs mailed out that day, you have to run it to a different post office. We just have to do more planning now. If we don’t make it before noon, we have to drive it to Iola, since Gas’ hours are short now, too.”

SPEAKING OF Gas: To mention the post office to Deborah Curry, manager at Piqua State Bank of Gas, is to light a fuse of eloquent invective, and then sit back and watch it burn: “This is a really good day for you to ask me,” said Curry, “because I have had, in the last week, just about all I can handle of the U.S. Postal Service.”
According to Curry, the bank generates between 3,000 and 4,000 statements a month, the timely delivery of which has been an increasing headache in the wake of the across-the-street post office’s truncated hours.
Like Lee in LaHarpe, Curry has been concerned with the health of her local post office since rumor of the downgrade took wing three years ago, and was a key voice in the meetings with USPS spokesmen leading up to the decision to bring Post Plan to Gas. “We went down there and a guy from the postal department stood right there and said ‘You need to support the post office here in Gas, so it will be able to stay open. We’re going to cut the hours, but we’re going to keep it open.’ Well, the hours are horrible for us, because we don’t close till 4 o’clock. When it was open until 4 o’clock we could run our stuff down there and it would go out the same night. Now, we have to stamp our envelopes and then I have to sit at the outside box and stuff them in the outside box. So, if I’ve got 1,500 statements, I’m sitting there for a long time, stuffing. And then, of course, we got in trouble because we were filling the box too much.
“So, yeah, it is really, really inconvenient. The guy stood right down there and told us that they didn’t have enough business to stay open all day, which is fine if it meant saving the post office and having it here in Gas, where we want it to be. But there is no way we can get our statements there by noon.”
Curry is another who, determined to keep the pulse alive in her local post office, made a decision of principle over convenience months earlier. “Before, all of the statements were being handled in Piqua. We determined that to help Gas stay open, we would have them ship all of the statements over here. So, now, the bulk of our mail goes out from here,” a decision she now may want back.
“Since the time that they’ve changed the hours, it’s just been a joke.”
Continuing west on 54, siblings Harvey Collins and Linda Bass, who operate Iola-based Central Publishing Co., have been using the Gas post office for their significant bulk mailings ever since a quarrel years ago with the Iola post office soured their views on the West Street branch.
According to Collins, the company spends as much as $40,000 in USPS shipping per year.
“Once we got out to Gas,” said Collins, “Pat Spencer was the post master. She not only welcomed our postal stuff, but she told my sister how to save money by making a couple of little changes to the way you do your labels, which the Iola post office had never mentioned in all the time we’d been there.”
This is the kind of knowledgeable service critics of Post Plan fear will be lost as post offices move to replace their full-time employees with part-time staff. As Collins notes, “If you’re a trained individual, you probably can’t justify working only three or four hours a day.”
Curry, too, cites the lower quality of service that accompanied the transition, but considers it just a small piece of a larger remorse. “It’s just sad to me what’s happening to all the little towns.”

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