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Changes in store for rural post offices

Some small post offices in Western North Carolina may have their hours cut or be shut down as the U.S. Postal Service continues to hunt for ways to solve its ongoing financial deficit.

Last year, a proposal to close hundreds of post offices across the country was met with a backlash, causing that plan to be largely abandoned. 

Instead, reduced hours have been proposed at more than three dozen post offices in Western North Carolina. Some post offices could be open as little as two hours per day. Others would be open four- or six-hour days.

Post offices eyed for shortened hours in the local area include Balsam in Haywood County, Almond in Swain, Scaly Mountain in Macon County, Tuckasegee and Webster post offices in Jackson County, Fontana Dam in Graham County, Brasstown in Clay County and Topton in Cherokee County.

Nationwide, the USPS is proposing reduced hours at 13,000 post offices. 

To gather public input, the Postal Service sent out mailers and posted surveys in the post offices slated for changes, asking residents their opinions on different options.

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Among the options posed to postal customers: cut hours; shut down the post office; contract with a local business to act as a post office; or provided mail services like buying stamps through the rural carrier.

What appears to be the most popular among residents is keeping the current post office open with reduced hours. 

Although closing the post office was among the options in the survey, Postal Service spokeswoman Monica Robbs, based in Raleigh, claimed closure would only be considered if that’s what community members said they wanted. Robbs said the decision would be based on input from the surveys and the community meetings

Some post office patrons were alarmed by the question on the survey proposing the idea of closing down the post office, and even reducing its hours.

“What it sounds like now is the best-case scenario would be cut back hours and shortened routes — and the worst-case scenario would be to close post offices all together,” said Tuckasegee community member Thomas Crowe. “But what we want in Tuckasegee is to keep things the way they are.”

In Tuckasegee, a rural community between Cullowhee and Cashiers, the post office is open six hours per day during weekdays with additional Saturday hours. Yet Post Master Margie Harris works eight hours per day during the week helping with the rural delivery route before and after regular post office hours.

Harris said the Tuckasegee post office could probably make do with reduced hours. Harris worked for about 20 years at the Cullowhee post office previously.

Postal Service officials predict they can save an average of $20,000 in salary and benefits per year for each post office they re-organize.

By reducing the hours at post office locations, the Postal Service plans to save $516 million per year in personnel costs.

The Postal Service targeted post offices with lower mail volumes, Robbs said. Geographic criteria was also a factor.

By the end of 2014, Postal Service officials plan to have the new changes in place.

But the calculated numbers game employed by the Postal Service to make changes to its rural post offices does not sit well with many rural residents. To them, their community post office is not just a place for sending and receiving mail; it’s a staple of the community, much like the local church or school.

However, the Postal Service is up against fundamental changes in its customers’ habits, most notably a hefty reduction in the amount first class mail it delivers now in comparison with 10 years ago. In comparison with 2001, the Postal Services handled 25 billion fewer pieces of first class mail in 2010.

Also, the agency is struggling with a congressional mandate forcing it to pay in advance its retiree’s benefits. The Postal Service reported on its website that it was unable on Sept. 30 to make a $5.5 billion payment to the U.S. Treasury Department. It defaulted on a similar payment on Aug. 1.

The Postal Service receives no tax dollars, and instead subsists on the sale of postage, products and services. The entity is under the direct control of the U.S. Congress.

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