Where Post Office Is the Town’s Heart, Fears of Closings

Neville, Ohio – While checking for mail on her daily visit, Susan Reid regaled the town postmaster with news of the wonderful swimming lessons enjoyed by her two home-schooled children. Suddenly, her 9-year-old son began tumbling around, ever so playfully, on the floor, as if he were at home.

Janet Blackburn, Neville’s postmaster for 39 years, paid him no mind, wondering aloud: “Do you know what happened to the plaques on the war monument?”

Part of the town memorial to two dozen soldiers who died in the world wars, the brass plaques, Ms. Reid said with regret, had been badly damaged by a cleaning man using the wrong chemicals. Meanwhile, the door of the white clapboard building opened and in walked Norma Bowling, a retired nurse’s aide, carrying a plastic bag. “Here are the bell peppers I promised you,” she said, handing the gift to Ms. Blackburn.

In Neville, and in many towns around the country these days, homespun conversations over post office counters are often turning from the latest gossip to a worrisome, newly pressing issue: the United States Postal Service has warned 3,700 communities, many of them in rural areas, that it is considering shuttering their local offices over the next few months.

“I just wish that they would leave our post office alone,” Ms. Bowling said. “If I couldn’t come here to get my mail every morning, I’d feel a big part of me has died.”

Townspeople in places like Neville are fuming and fighting back, often writing letters to Washington and enlisting members of Congress. Many say their post offices — Neville’s was founded in 1816 — have served as the gathering spot and heart of the town for generations, and that the closings would force residents, many of them elderly, to drive several miles to another post office.

If Neville’s closes, the nearest one remaining would be in Moscow, four miles to the north. Other nearby towns, Higginsport and Chilo, immediately east of Neville, also face closings, prompting residents to ask why the Postal Service seems to be picking on these communities along the Ohio River. “You’re throwing the little people, the rural people, under the bus,” said Dan Burke, a marketing representative who goes to the Chilo post office once or twice a day to mail proposals to potential customers.

The Postal Service ran a deficit of nearly $10 billion in the fiscal year that just ended, with much of that stemming from health care and pension obligations and from e-mail driving down the volume of first-class mail. Insisting that they desperately need to cut costs, postal officials have called for ending Saturday delivery, laying off 120,000 workers, and shutting rural post offices like the one in Neville, a town with barely 100 people — down from 500 when it was a booming river town in the steamboat era. Periodic floods have driven away many residents.

Many here note that the people who would be hurt most by the closings — the rural elderly — often do not use computers or e-mail.

Susan Brennan, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, defended the proposed closings. “Regarding rural America, the fact is that our network of post offices was established decades ago to serve populations that in many, many cases moved on years ago,” she said. “The residents in these communities already go to neighboring towns to shop for food, go to the drugstore, purchase gas, go to the bank — they can take care of their postal needs there.” Postal authorities have also proposed installing branches in some retail stores, with Ms. Brennan suggesting that the move might buoy ailing small-town shopkeepers.

Inside Neville’s post office building, which was once a grocery store, the Postal Service’s notice of “possible closing or consolidation” remains tacked to the bulletin board. Citing a “declining workload,” the Postal Service letter noted that the branch’s “walk-in revenue” declined to $15,487 in fiscal 2010, down from $21,806 the previous year. A closing, it estimated, would yield savings of $347,126 over 10 years — almost all from eliminating Ms. Blackburn’s job.

The letter stated, “Savings for the Postal Service contribute in the long run to stable postage rates and savings for customers.”

Ms. Blackburn is anything but a faceless bureaucrat — she plays community booster, historian and newscaster, telling people why that ambulance came to town a day earlier and warning people to lock their doors when an escaped convict was in the area. She also played an important role in arranging a paddleboat excursion to mark Neville’s bicentennial in 2008. (The Postal Service has ordered local postmasters not to grant interviews about the proposed closing.)

Mr. Burke said that to avoid shutting rural post offices, the Postal Service should first pare the number and salaries of upper managers and close more urban post offices. (Postal officials say they have been making such moves, but they would not save nearly enough money to avert rural closings.)

Some residents here also argue that just as the federal government subsidizes oil companies and other industries, it should subsidize rural post offices. Right now, the Postal Service, which is financed through sales of postage, receives no direct federal appropriations, although it is exempt from most taxes.

Townspeople also say the threatened closing insults the region’s lore. Six miles north lies Point Pleasant, the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant. And these river towns served as havens for the underground railroad.

Shelby Lucas, who has lived all of his 64 years in Neville, complained about the inconvenience that would accompany a closing. “It may save money for the post office, but it will cost us money, and it’s a hassle for us,” he said. “I’ll have to drive four miles each way to the post office in Moscow, but with the price of gas, that can really cost. It won’t be easy for retirees like me.”

Currently Neville has no mail delivery to homes or to curbside boxes, but the Postal Service says it might begin making deliveries to “cluster post boxes” of six or eight if the building is shuttered.

“I get retirement checks,” said Mr. Lucas, who used to work at Cincinnati Milacron, a machinery manufacturer. “If you put those post boxes on the street, I worry my retirement checks would disappear. There’ll be vandals. That’s happened before.”

Shirley Keller, 75, Chilo’s mayor, gets weepy about the post office. As a girl, she used to cross to Kentucky by rowboat with the postman to help him collect mailbags.

“There are quite a few old people here” said Ms. Keller, the mother-in-law of Chilo’s postmaster. “I don’t drive. It’ll be real hard to get to the post office in Felicity,” nearly five miles away.

Many rural residents have heard how the rise of e-mail and electronic bill-paying has caused the Postal Service’s volume and revenue to plummet.

“Everything is going to be the Internet,” said Carolyn Breisler, who is protesting the threatened closing in Decatur, Ohio. “Well, half the people in rural areas don’t have access to high-speed Internet. We’re not the ones putting the post office out of business. Yet we’re becoming the victims.”