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No need for three post offices in Walpole

January 3, 2013

Starting next week, the South Walpole Post Office on Summer Street will reduce its window service hours from eight to six hours per day as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s ongoing Post Office Structure Plan, known as the POStPlan, to cut costs.

The USPS ended the last fiscal year in September with a record $15 billion budget deficit, and is continuing its slide into insolvency in 2013. But as one of the federal government’s most recognizable and oldest agencies, the USPS is having difficulty trimming its rising costs in part because of resistance in many cities and towns across the country, sometimes even from powerful members of Congress, to its attempts to close post offices. As a compromise, the POStPlan avoids closing down about 13,000 small town and rural post offices nationwide, such as the one in South Walpole, by instead realigning hours at those zip codes.

Ironically, 02071 is actually the only one of Walpole’s three post offices that ended the last fiscal year in the black, with a surplus of almost $100,000 between revenue and expenses, according to USPS financial documents provided exclusively to 180 (see financial docs here.) Yet it is so far the only one of the town’s postal branches that will face cutbacks, probably because it also brings in the least revenue of the three.

It is unclear whether the South Walpole Post Office, or either of Walpole’s other post offices in East Walpole and downtown Walpole will face further cutbacks or even closures in the future. But in a preemptive measure to perhaps ward off the USPS, Walpole Selectmen voted unanimously in October in support of keeping the South Walpole branch open. Residents also appear to stand firmly against closure – in a USPS survey of South Walpole postal customers this past fall, 92 percent of the 181 people who responded supported realigning hours over three other options that would have involved the full closure of the post office. In a 180 poll published in November, a plurality of readers opposed closure of the South Walpole Post Office.

But even though federal law actually prohibits the U.S. Postal Service from permanently closing a small post office just to save money, it is difficult for politicians in Washington, and apparently even at Walpole Town Hall, to tell Americans the sad truth: many of their sacred local post offices simply are not sustainable anymore.

The cutbacks in hours at the South Walpole Post Office frankly don’t go far enough. It’s time for Walpole residents to do their part, as small as it may be, to help the USPS with its financial troubles and voluntarily give up one or two, or even all three of our post offices. A town of about 24,000 people, with so many other communication, shipping and delivery options available, does not need to have three post offices. Just one post office, or none, is enough.

We all know that the writing is on the wall for our beloved Post Office. When the U.S. Postal Service was founded in 1775, with Benjamin Franklin as the nation’s first postmaster, many of the conveniences that we take for granted in modern life didn’t exist. Email and telephones hadn’t been invented yet, horses and carriages were the only way to get from place to place, and communicating with people even 20 miles away was not as easy as driving down an interstate highway to see them in person or sending a text message within a second.

Post office use has declined significantly, with first-class mail volume nationwide decreasing by about 25 percent since 2006. Although the USPS does not maintain records related to changes in mail volume at specific post offices, financial records show that both the Walpole and South Walpole Post Offices saw revenue from their retail postage and other window services decline in the last fiscal year. Although the East Walpole Post Office did see an increase in revenue, suggesting an uptick in business at just that branch, it’s evident that Walpole residents are overall using the post office less often.

For a long time, too, and to some extent even still today, South and East Walpole each had unique cultural identities, represented by the fact that into the 1900s both areas of town also had their own fire stations and even train stations, in addition to post offices. Today, the South and East Walpole Fire Stations are shuttered and are used for storage. A town facilities study released by the Maguire Group last month actually recommended the town sell both of those facilities. Neither South or East Walpole have had their own train stations in many decades.

Although each part of town does have its own issues that other areas of town do not deal with, Walpole is still just one town. In the end, we all vote in the same municipal elections, we are all affected by the same town charter, and we all have the same property tax rates. When South Walpole was battling a casino in neighboring Foxboro last year, the rest of Walpole joined them in opposition. Residents of East Walpole who have faced issues at Siemens on Coney Street in recent years have similarly been joined in their political fights by residents from other areas of town.

We all use the same Town Hall, public library, and high school, along with the same stores and other government agencies. It doesn’t seem like a jump to declare that we should all share one post office as well.

There is no question that residents of East and South Walpole might find it hard to say goodbye to their own unique zip code, along with the sense of neighborhood identity that their zip code brings. But if residents feel a need to have a uniting bond with their neighborhood, precinct lines in town serve a very similar purpose – each part of town has their own Town Meeting Representatives and two different precincts even have their own state representatives shared with no other precincts in town. If South Walpole ever loses its 02071 zip code, they could rally around their “Precinct 5” identity instead, since most South Walpole residents all share that same precinct.

It’s also an inane notion that a post office should be kept open purely to give a neighborhood its own identity through its zip code. If someone moves out of town, they would lose their zip code just as easily as if their post office shuts down.

The closure of a post office also would not be the great inconvenience that many might think.

According to the USPS, Walpole’s three post offices have a combined total of 722 post office box holders, with 203 active post office boxes in South Walpole, 200 active post office boxes in East Walpole, and 319 active post office boxes at the Walpole center post office. These postal customers could move their boxes to other area post offices. South Walpole postal customers can use the Walpole, Foxboro, or Norfolk post offices, which are all within five miles. For East Walpole postal customers, Norwood, Sharon, and Walpole post offices are all within similarly close distances. For postal box holders who currently use the Walpole center post office, there are other post offices in area towns that would be available.

It’s also important to note that post office closures do not affect home and business delivery of mail and packages, which means most people might not even notice if their local post office closed.

Much like the closures of Registries of Motor Vehicles across the state in recent years have led more people to renew their licenses online now, a post office closure might also cause people to get more acquainted with the USPS website. Postal customers can use the website to buy stamps, or even for no charge ask the USPS to change their address when they move or hold their mail when they go on vacation. Customers can even schedule for the USPS to pick up their packages for free, completely avoiding the need to step foot in a post office at all to make shipments.

That’s also not to mention that UPS, one of the post office’s main rivals when it comes to shipping packages, also has a store in Walpole and as an added bonus comes without the surliness of government employees.

Although the Post Office does, by law, have a monopoly on first class mail, mailing letters usually does not require actually entering a post office because mailboxes are maintained at many locations throughout town.

And let’s face it: if the USPS wasn’t owned by the government, it wouldn’t have at least one branch in every single town anyway. There is a reason why private companies that provide very similar services as the USPS, such as FedEx and UPS, don’t have branches in every community. For that matter, the USPS is the only organization, either private or public, that maintains some type of storefront in just about every town and city in the country. In an urban area such as ours, this business model is unnecessary and not cost-effective. Rural areas in Alaska might need post offices in every town, but Greater Boston certainly does not.

If Walpole gave up one or two of its post offices, the community could also ask the USPS to replace them with Village Post Offices – a newly developed concept that is now being used in other areas of the country. In essence, a Village Post Office is an already-established local store, or even a Town Hall or other government building that contracts with the USPS to sell stamps and provide a limited number of postal products and services that would otherwise be available at a post office. In some cases, these establishments also have post office boxes for people to receive their mail. The local community also gets to keep their own zip code with a Village Post Office.

An added benefit is that some of these Village Post Offices are actually open longer than a normal post office would be. There are many stores in East Walpole and downtown Walpole that might benefit from this partnership with the USPS, attracting foot traffic and also getting a flat fee from the USPS.

If the Walpole center post office closed, Town Hall could become a Village Post Office – installing post office boxes, selling stamps, and providing shipping services while getting a small but potentially meaningful revenue stream from the Postal Service. Customers already use Town Hall for a variety of other services anyway, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to add postal services to the list of things they can get from their Town Hall.

Post office closures and cutbacks in hours, of course, will not be the only solution to the USPS’s financial mess. Indeed, the POStPlan itself is only expected to save the U.S. Postal Service about $500 million per year – a small chunk of the agency’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit.

The tragedy of the USPS is that it faces both internal pressures and external problems that have driven it into bankruptcy. Internally, it is battling a recalcitrant postal union and rising personnel costs. Externally, it faces competition from other package carriers like UPS and FedEx, a losing battle against obsolescence from email and other communications technology, the constant issue of rising gas prices making their massive vehicle fleet more expensive to operate, and a Congress that has passed many laws binding the USPS financially, including a Congressional mandate that it must pre-fund its future healthcare benefits to retirees.

It is unlikely that Congress will ever have the political will to reform the Postal Service, which means that communities like Walpole should step up and do whatever they can to ease the financial burden, such as voluntarily giving up their sacred post offices.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rich Petroni permalink
    January 18, 2013 1:50 PM

    Many tries to combine with 3 Post Offices over the years have been tried.

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