Sunday, March 6, 2011

Postal official says changes at post office are first step toward saving it; some citizens skeptical

By Clark Brooks
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

For the people of Midway, the post office is more than what its name implies; it’s a benchmark of the community.

“For a place to be a town for me, it has to have a church, a bank, and a post office,” regional postal official Tom Adkins told Midway postal customers Thursday night at a meeting on the future of their office. “I’ve seen post offices close and I don’t like doing it. Believe me when I say there isn’t even a whisper to close this office.”

Despite his repeated assurances, Adkins was grilled by citizens about the fate of the office. He confirmed that it will undergo several changes March 26 as part of a nationwide plan by the U.S. Postal Service to save $2 billion over the next decade by shrinking or eliminating 20,000 post offices. Here's a video report from Summer Hall:

The changes in Midway will downsize the post office from a class 16 station to a level 15, which includes a slight reduction in the postmaster’s salary, transfer of two mail carriers to the Versailles office and reassignment of one of the two mail clerks.

Over the two-hour meeting, dozens of townspeople were given hope that their beloved post office wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. A few, however, were already anticipating the changes to be the beginning of the end.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this is the first step to closure of our branch,” Dave Johnson said. “I mean, look around the country. There are places closing left and right. Soon this switch from a level 16 to 15 will finally end up with us turning around and the office being gone.”

Adkins, however, repeatedly said there are no plans to close the office, at one point saying, “We are not looking at closing the Midway Post Office. Not gonna do it.” But he deflected questions about who above him, or after him, could make that decision.

He said the changes would benefit of the community by making the branch more efficient, protecting it from further cuts that could lead to its closure.

Adkins was straightforward in saying that the post office, though it serves a growing community, doesn’t make money – though its mail volume has declined less than the average for post offices in the Lexington area.

“Right now, this is simply not a profitable branch, and it hasn’t been any time recently,” said Adkins, who supervises small-town post offices in the Lexington area. “This is not a first step to closing it. To me and anybody who’s been working on this project, it’s the first step in saving it.”

He said the biggest savings will be in “the clerks’ salary and benefits packages, which can be absorbed in the Versailles hub. I can easily see roughly a million dollars being saved by this branch alone in the next few years.”

Besides the benefits he feels it will bring to Midway, Adkins also mentioned that the downsizing will help the USPS deal with competitors such as UPS and Federal Express.

Midway Mayor Tom Bozarth, however, was skeptical that the changes would actually save money in the long run.

“I just can’t see how this isn’t a profitable branch,” he said. “We use our office more than most communities. I want to see expenses versus the profit in black and white; show us the savings.”

Though Adkins was reluctant to release information that might reveal individuals’ compensation, he did promise to give Bozarth details of the savings plan, and revenue and expense data for the post office.

People at the meeting made it clear the post office is the most visited building in Midway, with the possible exception of the grocery, and is much more than a place to buy stamps and pick up mail. It is a place to socialize with neighbors and stay informed about them, their families and community happenings, giving it great importance.

“It’s like a rite of passage for our kids to turn that key in our own mail box,” Midway resident Shirley Wilson said. “To me, it’s the most important building in town.”

Most residents of Midway don’t have home mail delivery and instead pick up their mail at their family box at the office, which is a free service if the box is small. Some residents complained that they have paid for a larger box for years without knowing that a small one is free.

Certified mail and packages will still be held at the Midway post office, meaning Midway postal customers wouldn’t need to travel to the Versailles office.

In Kentucky, 16 post offices have already been shut down in the retooling by the USPS, but Adkins said those offices and service areas were different from Midway’s.

“The offices we have been closing are generally extremely close to other post offices or stations that are only two- or four-hour offices,” Adkins said. “I remember one such instance where there were three offices in less than of a mile from each other. It’s just a matter of cutting unnecessary spending.”

Adkins said one way to help guarantee the future of the post office is to use it. Residents suggested that the office should not close for lunch, and Adkins said he would look into that.

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