FOX, Ark. – If the U.S. Postal Service ever thought it could simply slip into hundreds of rural communities across the country and quietly close their post offices without a fight, it now knows differently.
In any town, having almost 200 people show up for a community meeting would be impressive. On Nov. 28, a bone-chilling, blustery evening in tiny Fox, Ark., deep in the Ozarks, that turnout was astounding.
Family upon family piled into the Rural Special School cafeteria at 5:30 p.m. to meet regional representatives from the Postal Service and let them know politely – but with definite passion and conviction – that Fox residents need their post office.
In June, the Postal Service announced that it was considering closing 3,700 post offices nationwide. When the list of closures came out, it was painfully clear that poor and isolated communities – where residents depend on the branches for their mail, including social security checks, medicine and news – would be hardest hit.
The reality of the post office closures came a little closer on Dec. 5, when the cash-strapped agency announced it plans to close 250 mail-processing centers nationwide and lay off nearly 30,000 workers by spring. With those changes, the promise of next-day delivery, a post office standard for 40 years, will end.
At the Dec. 5 briefing, David Williams, vice president of the Postal Service, said the agency must move quickly to cut costs and raise revenues. On Jan. 22, the price of a first-class stamp will climb another penny as the Postal Service seeks to stem five years of financial losses.
The changes are part of an effort to help the Postal Service avoid bankruptcy next year. The agency is struggling financially as communications – from birthday cards to paying bills – move online.
But moving online is not an option for the many rural families living in the poorest parts of the country, where Internet service and cell phone reception are spotty or nonexistent, and few have computers. They rely on the post office for doing business, receiving their medications, and staying in contact with distant friends, family – and the rest of the world.
Fox families, like those in hundreds of rural communities across the country, are making sure the U.S. Postal Service understands, beyond any doubt, that they don’t intend to lose their post office. There is too much at stake.
They are fighting back.
“We really worked at this effort for two months before the meeting,” said Renee Carr, executive director of the Rural Community Alliance. “We prepared ourselves for battle.”
Banners announcing the meeting were posted on the school and across the street from the post office. School children drew pictures and posters asking that the post office be saved.
Carr, whose family has lived in the mountain community for generations, made a YouTube video capturing scenes of rural Fox and comments from residents about the importance of the post office to the community. More than 350 residents signed a save-our-post-office petition left on the counter at the Fox grocery store.
At the meeting, photographs of local families, along with news stories about the threatened post office, were on display. After the meeting, everything was packed in a box, including a DVD of the meeting, and mailed to David Camp, the Arkansas district manager for the U.S. Postal Service.
Now it’s a waiting game.
“It’s all in their court,” said Carr. “If we object to their decision, we have just 30 days to file an appeal.”
Fox residents say the post office is as important to their community as the school.
“If they close the post office, I think it will affect us more than we know,” said Merle Sutterfield, who just celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary with husband Herman.
Bill Amos, a veteran who is blind, receives his medications by mail. He and his wife walk each day from their home to the Fox post office. “It’s a catastrophe for someone like me,” Amos says.
The daily walk to the mailbox or the post office gives many residents a reason to get out in the fresh air and exercise. And the post office serves as a community hub: There is always the chance of running into friends or family picking up packages or placing a money order.
“I’m a widow, and the mail provides a source of entertainment,” said Edna Huddler, who has lived in Fox most of her life. “I order lots of magazines and read a lot because I no longer have a companion to talk to.
“I look forward to getting the mail each day. It’s the highlight of the day to receive a card, letter, magazine or newspaper,” she said.
The Postal Service, an independent agency of government, does not receive tax money but is subject to congressional control on major aspects of its operations.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has been pushing for congressional changes that would give the agency authority to reduce delivery to five days a week, raise stamp prices and reduce labor costs.
The agency opposes current provisions in House and Senate legislation that would require additional layers of review before it could close post offices and processing centers.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, believes the agency is taking the wrong approach. She says service cuts will only push more consumers to online bill payment or private carriers such as UPS and FedEx.
Postal union leaders and other critics of the proposed closures say the Internet isn’t the problem. The deep deficit was manufactured in 2006 when the outgoing Republican Congress required the post office to prepay 75 years of pension payments, pensions for employees not hired yet, maybe not even born yet.
A current Senate bill would refund nearly $7 billion the Postal Service overpaid into a federal retirement fund, encourage a restructuring of employee health benefits and reduce the agency’s annual payments into a health account for future postal service retirees. No other agency or business is required to make such prepayments.
Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a member of the House committee that oversees the agency, said he would fight the service cutbacks.
“These draconian cuts were proposed under the false pretense that the Postal Service is headed towards bankruptcy. We could easily protect the Postal Service if Congress would address the agency’s overpayment into its Retiree Health Benefits program, and allow the USPS to generate revenue in other ways that take advantage of their existing infrastructure and dedicated workers.
“This privatization plan is bad for Americans, bad for businesses, bad for the economy and bad for workers. We can do better than to dismantle the Postal Service and privatize its operations,” Kucinich said.
In the meantime, rural communities that have fought to keep their post offices, stand by, waiting for a decision and wondering what comes next.
“I guess the real question is: Does the voice of the community count?” said Renee Carr in Fox.
This article includes information from the Associated Press.