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Small Post Offices, The End of an Era

Catlin Mullin
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ESMOND, Ill. (AP) __ A basket of cucumbers was on the counter Monday of the U.S. post office in Clare, and everyone was welcome to take a few home.

In Esmond, a local news bulletin board in the post office shares information on a nearby food pantry.  At both locations, postal workers greet customers by name. The  post office is the only, or one of the only, buildings that’s not residential or a farm structure.

Although residents said these small post offices are part of their respective community’s identity, locations in Clare, Esmond and Lee are on the U.S. Postal Service’s list to be evaluated for possible closure.

“We need this. Our little community needs this,” said Mary Ann Sommers, who lives across the road from the Clare Post Office. Beverly Howard, customer relations coordinator for the central Illinois district of the U.S. Postal Service, said there are 3,653 post offices across the country on the list; 85 are within the central Illinois district.

The announcement of possible closures comes as the Postal Service faces a $8 billion deficit. If all of the offices on the list were closed, it would save $200 million, which “still
wouldn’t be enough,” Howard said.

Postmasters at the Clare, Esmond and Lee locations said they could not speak with the Daily Chronicle and referred requests for comment to Howard’s office.

Many customers are now doing online transactions, Howard said, and first-class mail volume has dropped.

“We don’t see that coming back,” Howard said. The Postal Service also is obligated to pre-fund retirement and health insurance, which is a big chunk of money, she said.  At the Clare, Esmond and Lee offices, at least 50 percent of the post office boxes are vacant, Howard said. Each office has a postmaster position, and only Esmond has a part-time carrier, she said.

During the evaluation process, Howard said the government will look at what type of sales occur at those locations. If one location mainly does stamp sales, Howard said, the government may look at other places in that community where customers could purchase stamps.

Community meetings will be held to gather resident input, and information on the meetings will be posted in those post offices once they have been set, Howard said. Based on the amount of time allowed for a decision on closures, responses from the public and appeals to be made, realistically, nothing will happen before early 2012, she said.

For locations that may be closed, carriers could be assigned to another office, Howard said; postmasters would no longer have a job.

The Postal Service hopes to continue offering access to post office boxes within the community, she said, and it may do that through a stand-alone structure of boxes similar to a mailbox hub at a condominium complex. The Postal Service is not looking to make customers travel to a post office box at another office, Howard said.

Rural routes are considered a “post office on wheels,” she said. Residents are able to buy or order stamps through a carrier or online.

Overall, Howard said, the Postal Service is looking at alternative access points to postal products and services – other places or ways residents can buy things, send or get mail. That’s
why officials hope the community meetings shed some light on how possible closures would affect residents, she said.

“We’re just trying to shift where they might do business and how they might do business,” Howard said.

When Sommers stopped in the Clare Post Office Monday to send and pick up some mail, she was greeted by the officer-in-charge, whom she chatted with for a few minutes.

“There’s a lot of people that go to this post office just because they like it,” said Sue Cooley, who also lives across the road from the building.

Sommers’ husband gets his paychecks through the mail, and there are packages they expect from time to time. To have to drive somewhere to pick up her mail from a post office box would be costly with the price of gas, she said.

“You’re always going over there,” she said of the post office. Sommers, Cooley and neighbor Donna Harlow said they get town news when stopping by the post office.

“Being such a small community, it’s sort of our identity,” said Mayfield Township Supervisor Joe Totman. “It’s just been a part of this community forever.”

Otto Heisner said the Esmond post office is “awful convenient” for him because he lives just a mile down the road, but he said he understands why the office is on the list.

“It’s going to be tough, but we’ve got to stop some place and start putting money back in the coffers,” Heisner said. But, he added, “I’d rather do without Saturday service and have
a post office.”

While the Postal Service takes into consideration the community aspect of a post office, Howard said, the financial picture is something that must be evaluated.

“Times are changing, too, and we understand that sometimes change is difficult,” she said.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press 

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