Nearly three dozen post offices and branches in the state, including some in central and western Maine, are being considered for closure by the U.S. Postal Service.
The local post offices under consideration include Paris Hill, North Waterford, Danville in Auburn, Stoneham and East Livermore. The sites are largely in rural areas, but the list of 34 post offices also includes one in downtown Portland. They are some of the 3,700 post offices nationwide that are being considered for closure.
“We're not looking to eliminate postal service to these areas,” Postal Service spokesman Tom Rizzo said. The phones in his Portland-based district office rang continuously Tuesday afternoon after the announcement was made, he said. “It's just a study at this point.”
Each post office will be studied and public comments will be reviewed before a case-by-case decision is made on closures, he said.
In some cases where post offices are closed, Rizzo said a village post office may be created at a local convenience store or drug store. “Customers can still get postal services but at better hours,” he said.
The move is being made in an attempt to cut costs after the U.S. Postal Service reported a $2.6 billion loss on March 31. The U.S. Postal Service said it can save $200 million by closing 3,700 of its 32,000 post offices nationwide. According to the USPS, more than 3,000 of the offices identified reported less than $27,500 in annual revenue.
“The idea is still to provide maximum service in a different form,” Rizzo said. The plan would be to contract with local businesses, such as a drug or convenience store, to provide space where customers could buy stamps, mail packages and so forth in a storefront that will be accessible for longer periods of time than the current post offices are open.
Rizzo said residents and businesses will be given 60 days' notice of the proposed commenting period. That comment period has already begun in Waterford. Town Clerk Brenda Bigonski said Tuesday that the USPS Service held a hearing at the municipal building last week seeking comments on the proposed North Waterford post office closure.
Any final determination made will be in writing and include documentation that the post office in question has met all criteria established for closing, including the effect a closure will have on a community and on the post office employees, Rizzo said.
Most of the affected post offices are one or two-person operations, he said.
Reaction to the news of the potential closures came swiftly from residents and legislators on Tuesday.
“I'm disappointed,” said Jacqueline Kim, a resident of Paris Hill for the past 14 years. She said she came to the area from Boston and previously California specifically because of things like the local neighborhood post office and the feel of a neighborhood.
“The post office belongs in the mix,” she said of the building that lies in the heart of the Paris Hill National Historic District where many retirees spend their summers, along with year-round residents.
About 140 post boxes are in use at the facility, said Linda Young, the postmaster relief this week at the Paris Hill Post Office. The majority of them are for year-round residents. Young said she received a call from her boss at district headquarters Tuesday morning informing her of the decision to place the Paris Hill Post Office on the list.
U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, released a statement Tuesday morning saying: “Financial challenges faced by the USPS should not preclude the preservation of universal postal service and convenient community access. It is critical we carefully assess the potential impact of these proposed closures, especially as it relates to service in rural communities. I am encouraged USPS intends to work with community retailers to continue providing postal services in affected communities and I will closely monitor this situation to ensure that, in the event of any post office closures, USPS continues to meet the needs of rural customers in Maine and nationwide.”
Her colleague U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who in February introduced postal reform legislation, said closing rural post offices would only affect 1 percent of the postal service's costs. "While there are some areas where postal services could be consolidated or moved into a nearby retail store to ensure continued access, this simply is not an option in many rural and remote areas.”
And Congressman Mike Michaud wrote a letter to United States Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe Tuesday saying, “... I remained concerned that they are targeting rural post offices that are important to communities throughout Maine. The Postal Service needs to address the real drivers of their fiscal problems and not roll back vital services for rural Mainers.”
Rizzo said that $5.5 billion of the U.S. Postal Service's $8 billion deficit is due to a congressional mandate instituted in 2006 that required $5.5 billion be put aside for future retiree health benefits.
The mandate is unique among private and public entities, he said, and unique to the source of the post services' mammoth deficit.
There are currently five bills before Congress to address this mandate, he said, but so far no relief.
Rizzo said the largest driving force in the decision to close post offices and go to a village post office concept in some cases is the change in communication practice's since the late 1990s when the Internet and email began to initiate the decline in mail.
In 2007, the post office peaked at 213 billion pieces of mail but by last year that number was down to 170 billion pieces. The drop has been further affected by the economy and other forms of social media that have surfaced in recent years, he said.