Notices are arriving in mailboxes of rural Americans — who fought off a plan earlier this year to close thousands of small-town post offices — that change is still coming.
Many of the nation's smallest post offices, including hundreds in Nebraska and Iowa, will cut their retail window hours by 2014 — unless postal patrons elect one of three options that would shut down their post office.
The plan would keep the existing post office in place, but with modified retail window hours to match customer use, postal officials said. Access to the retail lobby and to post office boxes would remain unchanged. The town's ZIP code and community identity would be retained.
In Nebraska, the first community meetings to explain the options are Tuesday in Ashby, Crab Orchard, Hoskins and Merriman.
Gloria Doffin plans to attend. Doffin, office manager at Hoskins Manufacturing, a company that produces livestock waterers, said reduced window hours could delay and add expense to outgoing shipments.
“How come they offered three options for closing the post office but only one to keep it open?'' she said. “It could have a major impact on us.''
Brian Sperry, a U.S. Postal Service regional spokesman in Denver, said modifying retail window hours at more than 13,000 rural post offices across the country will preserve them and enable the service to cut costs and help return the organization to financial stability.
The Postal Service lost $8.5 billion in fiscal year 2012 and $5.1 billion in 2011. The projected loss this fiscal year is $15 billion.
The Postal Service receives no taxpayer dollars for its operations. It relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations. First-class mail deliveries have declined 25 percent during the last six years.
“Doing business as usual is not an option,” Sperry said.
Rural Americans made themselves heard loud and clear when they rejected closure plans floated about 18 months ago, Sperry said.
“We just need to adopt a new business model,” he said. “A lot of people pay their bills online. We realize even more people will pays bills that way in the future. We get it. We understand the digital revolution is here, but we also understand that the Postal Service remains a vital part of communities.”
Randel and Jane Smith, who operate a floating bed-and-breakfast on a former casino boat in Brownville, Neb., said the post office's role in a small town can't be overemphasized.
Jane Smith said the post office is vital to the winery, bookstores, antique shops, art galleries and seven museums in the Missouri River village of 132 in southeast Nebraska.
“It's the hub of the community,” Jane Smith said. “In a small town, we really work to keep our town going. The post office is a big part of that.''
The Smiths walk down the hill from their home on Fourth Street to the post office six days a week.
“Everybody goes down in the morning to get their mail,” she said.
The Brownville Post Office lobby and retail window open at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Mail is ready for pickup in postal boxes by 8. Jessica Murphy, the officer in charge, closes the window from noon to 1:30 p.m. and then reopens until 4 p.m. The Postal Service has proposed cutting Brownville's hours to four hours a day.
Murphy said mail volume ebbs and flows in Brownville. The nearby Cooper Nuclear Station generates a steady stream of letters and packages.
“This time of year, with the election and holidays, it definitely picks up,” Murphy said.
Randel Smith was skeptical about the intent behind cutting hours.
“I don't think it's a good idea because it's the first step to not having a post office at all,'' he said.
Post offices in affected towns will remain open with reduced hours unless at least 60 percent of community members indicate in a mailed survey that they prefer one of three other options, each of which would close the local post office. The three other options include starting curb-side delivery, which is not available now; offering service at a post office in a nearby community; or establishing a Village Post Office in a local business.
A Village Post Office is a year-old initiative to provide postal services — in convenience stores, libraries and businesses, for example — that are operated by the management of those locations. The operations offer postal services most used by customers, such as postal boxes, stamps and collection boxes. Sperry said the Postal Service will consider establishing a Village Post Office in any location where there is no existing post office or where the post office will have reduced hours.
Murphy said several dozen postal patrons have returned surveys seeking their opinion on the future of the Brownville Post Office. Results will be announced at a meeting next week.
In Hoskins, a town of 285 in Wayne County in northeast Nebraska, people who commute to nearby Norfolk or other communities would find it more difficult to pick up packages during shortened window hours, said Rodney Rixe, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church.
“A lot of people are used to driving back and forth to Norfolk, so dropping off a package at the post office isn't the end of the world. We can do that,'' he said. “But the biggest inconvenience will be trying to pick up a package that doesn't fit into your little box.”
Rixe said shortened hours may inspire a local business to contract with the Postal Service to open a Village Post Office.
Most afternoons, Doffin walks half a block from Hoskins Manufacturing to the post office to mail urgently needed supplies — such as small parts to repair a water tank heater.
United Parcel Service stops at Hoskins Manufacturing in the morning. Some outbound shipments miss the UPS pick-up. Doffin said she prefers to mail small parts in padded envelopes via the local post office because the cost is lower than UPS and shipments could be in the hands of an area farmer the next day.
Not all small post offices face reduced hours. In some places, such as Gray, Iowa, a village of 64 in Audubon County, the hours will not change. Gray is scheduled to keep its two-hour daily schedule, if postal patrons agree.
Also, post offices located at least 25 miles from another post office will be operational six hours daily regardless of workload, Sperry said.
Postal patrons in affected communities will be notified by mail of the time, date and place of their local meeting. Some meetings won't be held until next year.
During the meetings, post office managers will share results of the surveys. The results and public comments will be taken into account before a final decision is posted inside the post office later, Sperry said.
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Public meetings on post office hours
Schedules subject to change. Check your post office to confirm details.
» Ashby, 6 p.m., post office (8 to 6 hours)
» Crab Orchard, 6 p.m., community center (4 to 2 hours)
» Hoskins, 1 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Merriman, 1 p.m., senior center (6 to 4 hours)
» Polk, 1 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Bloomington, 1 p.m., post office (4 to 2 hours)
» Brownville, 5 p.m., Village Hall (8 to 4 hours)
» Danbury, 4 p.m., community center (8 to 2 hours)
» Funk, 2 p.m., community center (8 to 4 hours)
» Naper, 4 p.m., Auditorium (8 to 6 hours)
» Springview, 1 p.m., post pffice (8 to 6 hours)
» Stockville, 1 p.m., community hall (4 to 2 hours)
» Greeley, 2 p.m., Courthouse (8 to 4 hours)
» Nemaha, 6 p.m., Community Building (6 to 2 hours)
» Angora, 1 p.m., Club House (4 to 2 hours)
» Concord, 1 p.m., Fire Hall (8 to 4 hours)
» Elk Creek, 6 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Pilger, 4 p.m., Fire Department (8 to 4 hours)
» Rockville, 2 p.m., Auditorium (6 to 2 hours)
» Dunbar, 6 p.m., Presbyterian Church (4 to 2 hours)
» Marquette, 2 p.m., Community Hall (8 to 4 hours)
» Butte, 1 p.m., Community Hall (8 to 6 hours)
» Lynch, 4 p.m., community center (8 to 6 hours) » Rosalie, 6 p.m., Community Hall (8 to 2 hours)
» Braddyville, 6 p.m., Braddy Hall (8 to 2 hours)
» Cumberland, 5:15 p.m., post cffice (8 to 4 hours)
» Fontanelle, 4 p.m., post office (8 to 6 hours)
» Grant, 6:30 p.m., post office (4 to 2 hours)
» Orient, 2:45 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Afton, 5:30 p.m., post office (8 to 6 hours)
» Blockton, 2:45 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Prescott, 2 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Sharpsburg, 1:15 p.m., post office (4 to 2 hours)
» Thayer, 6:30 p.m., post office (4 to 2 hours)
» Lorimor, 3:30 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Modale, 6 p.m., Legion Hall (8 to 2 hours)
» Castalia, 4 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Early, 6 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Gray, 3:30 p.m., post office (2 hours; no change)
» Lytton, 5 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Westfield, 4 p.m., post office (8 to 4 hours)
» Shambaugh, 6 p.m., Community Center (6 to 2 hours)
Meeting dates pending:
» Blencoe (8 to 4 hours)
» Hamburg (8 to 6 hours)
» Oakland (8 to 6 hours)
» Pacific Junction (8 to 4 hours)
Source: U.S. Postal Service