For nearly 100 years, rural Vermont has counted on free rural delivery of mail, and a local post office where people could send and receive packages, buy stamps and chat with neighbors.
But that could change. There’s currently a bill in the U.S. Senate that would make it legal to close post offices that don’t make money, and not many do.
People should no longer take their post offices for granted, said Diane Geoffroy, who retired as postmaster in Lowell two years ago.
Few rural post offices actually make a profit, or even break even, she said. Other efforts by the U.S. Postal Service also appear to be aimed at eliminating small post offices, she added.
“We’re not trying to scare people, but we feel people need to be aware,” Ms. Geoffroy said. “Right now a post office cannot be closed solely because it doesn’t make money. They’re mandated to keep them open for the community benefit.”
Under the terms of the Senate bill, free mail delivery would continue, but many post offices, including Ms. Geoffroy’s old office in Lowell, would be in jeopardy because of federal efforts to cut costs, she believes.
Eleanor Smith worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 32 years, in part as postmaster in the town of Chester. She’s now active in the National Association of Postmasters. Postmasters can’t unionize, but they do have organizations to represent them, she said.
One of the committees in the association tries to keep post offices open, and that’s Ms. Smith’s job for the New England region.
“I hear people say, they wouldn’t close my post office,” she said. “I think, where have you people been? What do you think is going on?”
She said the bill is not the only concern, although it’s a major one. Another is the fact that postmasters in small country offices are not being replaced.
For instance, Ms. Geoffroy said she hasn’t been. There is an employee who operates the post office, but she has not been named postmistress. There are 30 post offices in Vermont at the moment with “officers in charge” rather than postmasters, Ms. Smith said.
That situation makes it easier to close a post office, she said.
There’s no question that the U.S. Postal Service is in financial trouble, Ms. Smith said. People are using e-mail instead of “snail mail.” They’re paying their bills online. UPS and FedX ship packages and offer next day delivery.
She said she can remember a time when businesses mailed out so many advertising fliers that she’d sometimes have to decide which ones her carriers could deliver on a given day. But those days are long over.
“The postal service has a lot of competition today that it didn’t have in the past,” Ms. Smith said. “The volumes are just gone. The point is that the postal service has to change.”
However, she said that, if she were operating a floundering business, she wouldn’t think that closing outlets and raising rates would be the way to rescue it.
Nor does she believe that closing offices would actually save much money. Carriers are paid nearly as much as postmasters, she said.
And closing post offices would mean that carriers would be driving longer distances to deliver mail and putting in more hours.
“I don’t see the big cost savings, and I see a tremendous loss of service,” Ms. Smith said.
What do people do if they receive a letter or package they have to sign for? She wondered. How would they manage if they’re at work during the day and have to drive a half hour to get to the closest post office?
In this area, the Sutton post office was closed after longtime postmistress Shirley Brill retired. The former Sutton office has been merged into the Burke office.
Sometime in the 1970s, the U.S. Postal Service ceased being the U.S. Postal Department, Ms. Smith said. It’s currently a quasi-governmental agency that’s supposed to be self-supporting. And for a while it was, she said. She said she retired in 1998, and at that time post offices were in better shape. There was a rate increase about every three years, which kept the postal service afloat.
The federal government no longer subsidizes the postal service, Ms. Smith said.
She said the government is already closing offices throughout the country.
“The past couple of years I’ve seen a huge change, and they’ll use any excuse they can,” Ms. Smith said. “But if this passes, it will be even worse. There would be thousands of offices closed across the U.S. I’ve tried to figure out what the long-range goals and plans are, and I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone in Washington does either.
“It’s a serious situation. The post office in a lot of these towns is their only identity; it’s where people see each other. They closed West Fairlee and put everything into Thetford, which is seven or eight miles.”
She said she recently learned about a post office in New York State that was closed after the rent on the building where it was housed increased. It was a post office the size of Newport’s, she said.
“That goes beyond small and rural.”
Active postmasters are not allowed to talk to reporters.
Ms. Smith said that, if the postal service wants to close an office, it’s compelled to hold a meeting to get public input. However, it doesn’t always pay a lot of attention to what it hears, she added.
She said people in Sutton were not happy about losing their post office, but it was closed anyway.
People who are concerned about the possible closure of an office in their area should contact their congressmen, she said.