August 12, 2020

Tiny Arkansas Towns Fight for Post Offices, and Survival

It sat there perfectly content for years, a little community on a crooked mountain road in the southern Ozarks. Then one day they closed the post office. Now Mozart is a place on the road where only those who knew it was there would know it was there. The same thing happened with Newnata, Rushing and Cozahome.

But if the people in Fox have a say, it will not happen again, at least not here.

“There are those who have been downtrodden so long, they can’t get back up,” said Stanley Morrison, 59, a logger and a justice of the peace here in rural Stone County. “And there are others who’ve been downtrodden so long they decide to fight back.”

Along with the residents of other tiny towns across the country, from Challenge, Calif., to Economy, Ind., the people of Fox learned last summer that their post office was being studied for possible closing by the United States Postal Service. It was one of the more than 3,600 deemed by the postal authorities to have too little a workload — less than $27,500 annual revenue is one such measurement — or to be too close to another office to justify keeping open by an agency that is billions of dollars in debt and facing a steeply and steadily declining revenue stream.

The response, here as elsewhere, has been swift. Letters have been sent, petitions drawn up. People have taken day trips to their representatives’ offices, bringing so much political pressure that Congress persuaded the Postal Service last month to declare a moratorium on the closings until May.

Still, McKinney Boyd, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said the process would pick right back up at the end of the moratorium.

“We understand that many people in small communities are extremely passionate about their post offices, but at the same time we’re losing more than $23 million a day,” he said. “With those kinds of losses, the Postal Service has to look at ways to offset its expenses.”

The residents of Fox are planning to pick right back up where they left off, too.

The resistance movement here has been led by Renee Carr, the director of the Rural Community Alliance, a nonprofit group. She has filed public-records requests, badgered elected officials, made a YouTube video and created a chart of the local post office’s revenues, which, she says, is more accurate than the figures she managed to obtain, at long last and with the help of a United States senator, from the postal authorities.

She has been joined in her campaign by a dogged brigade of retired postmasters, waging similar fights in little communities and four-building towns across Arkansas, where roughly a third of post offices are on the list of possible closings.

Over in Tilly, a no-stoplight community where the post office sits in the back corner of Fountain Grocery, residents created a fact-filled PowerPoint presentation and prepared for a visit by the postal authorities with a series of dry-runs at the church.

“I don’t remember an issue where we had to pull together like this,” said Charlene Fountain, whose mother was the postmaster until her sister took over.

The people of tiny Ida, which was on an early list of closings, came together and filed a formal appeal, helped in their data gathering by the longtime but recently retired postmaster. In Prim, residents are considering a fund-raiser so that they can hire a lawyer if an appeal becomes necessary.

The campaigners mount their defense of the rural post office on practical grounds, as the place where the elderly have their medications sent, where those living on remote mountain roads far outside town keep a letter box, where the Pentecostals who do not look kindly on computers conduct much of their business and where postmasters discreetly read letters for the customers who are unable to do so themselves. These arguments are bolstered by what data they can get their hands on. While Ms. Carr and others acknowledge that rural post offices generally run at a steep deficit, they take issue with the calculations used by the Postal Service to make its decisions about closings — a criticism also raised by the Postal Regulatory Commission in a recent report.

The deeper anxiety is an existential one. Prim, Tilly, Ida, Fox — all of these communities were named into existence decades ago, and in some cases more than a century ago, by a postmaster. While the postal authorities insist that there will be alternatives to stand-alone offices — for example, an outdoor bank of boxes like those at apartment buildings — residents fear that places that began with post office buildings would simply cease to exist with their departure.

“I haul logs and I see a lot of the country,” Mr. Morrison said. “The places that have lost their post offices have just died.”

The letter-writing campaigns have gotten the right attention. Even Republican members of Congress who came into office on the wave of fiscal hawkishness in 2010, like Senator John Boozman and Representative Rick Crawford, are coming to the defense of the rural post office.

Mr. Boozman, in an interview, raised the same concerns echoed by his constituents and the Postal Regulatory Commission: that the closing process has been frustratingly opaque.

“It appears that their method so far has been pretty arbitrary,” he said.

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Postal Service Predicts Record Loss for 2012

“We continue to see steady declines, unfortunately, in first-class mail, which is our most profitable product,” the postmaster general, Patrick R. Donahoe, said at a board meeting in Washington on Tuesday. “We have to build tomorrow’s postal service based on revenue and volume projections as we look forward. We can’t look backward.”

The amount of mail delivered by the Postal Service will probably fall about 6 percent in fiscal 2012, exceeding the drop of about 2 percent a year earlier, said its chief financial officer, Joseph Corbett. Revenue is expected to decline to $64 billion in 2012, from $65.7 billion in 2011, he said.

Mail volumes have dropped more than 20 percent in the last five years, hurt by the recession and the increasing use of electronic communications. The service, which is supposed to support itself financially, is closing post offices and processing plants, cutting jobs and promoting the mailing of letters and packages.

The Postal Service, which also said it might run out of cash by next September, posted a 2011 net loss of $5.1 billion in the year ended Sept. 30 after a $5.5 billion benefits payment was delayed into fiscal 2012. The loss in 2010, when the agency made a benefits payment equal to the deferred one, was $8.5 billion.

The loss forecast for 2012 assumes that the agency will not make any of the $5.6 billion in retiree health payments coming due, Mr. Corbett said in a conference call with reporters.

In September, Congress delayed the benefits payment deadline until Friday. If that remains in place, the Postal Service will default on the payment, Mr. Corbett said.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week approved a bill intended to help the service remain solvent and to lengthen the payment schedule to its retiree health benefits fund.

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