Return to Sender
Can a Maine town survive if it loses its post office?
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Herb Swanson
The U.S. Post Office in East Andover is a homey little one-room affair painted white with robin’s egg blue trim and door. Often photographed, the colorful roadside attraction is one of the last vestiges of civic life in a rural neighborhood reached via a covered bridge over the Ellis River at one end and a one-lane bridge over the river at the other.
As recently as the 1980s, the East Andover Post Office was known as the Hutchins Store, a one-stop shopping and meeting place with gas pumps, goods, and post office all in one. Now all that’s left is the post office and that, too, may soon be a thing of the past.
East Andover is one of thirty-four Maine post offices on the U.S. Postal Service’s (USPS) list of 3,653 post offices nationwide being eyed for elimination as a cost savings measure. While a couple of the Maine post offices are on islands and a couple are downtown branches in Augusta and Portland, most are small, rural post offices in places such as East Andover that even Maine natives might have trouble locating on a map. East Andover is part of the town of Andover and is located north of Bethel in Oxford County. But where are Birch Harbor, Brookton, Cambridge, Caratunk, Danville, Kingman, Meddybemps, Perham, Saint David, Shawmut, Trevett, and Winn?
The thirty-four Maine post offices on the USPS hit list were identified from among the 420 post offices statewide on the basis of low revenues, low foot traffic, and low workload. Some on the list generate less than fifty dollars a day in revenue.
The closure process calls for North New England District Post Office Review Coordinator Jim McCartney, in the Portland office, to study all thirty-four Maine post offices as well as five in New Hampshire and fourteen in Vermont and hold public hearings on the possible closures. Northern New England District Manager Deborah Essler will then decide which post offices to close subject to approval from USPS headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Folks in East Andover know they are going to have a tough time making the case for keeping their post office open. Their arguments tend to be ones of convenience rather than necessity.
Earle Towne, who runs the Cabin hikers hostel with his wife Margie, points out that East Andover, like Caratunk, is a traditional mail drop for Appalachian Trail through-hikers. “Our guest are hikers,” Towne says. “They send the food they need to this post office and we pick it up for them. It’s really critical.”
Sidney Pew, owner of King Kong Services, a window-washing company with clients all over the state and country, hopes his business and the handful of others in town can at least keep East Andover’s 04226 zip code if the post office moves to 04216, the Andover Post Office just three miles away. “For me, from a business standpoint, that would be very important,” says Pew, who would rather not have to order all new stationary and advertising materials.
And Laura Hutchins, who will be out the $225 a month the post office pays her in rent if it does close, believes that East Andover will also be deprived of an important public meeting place. “We don’t get all the news from Andover until people come in and tell us,” Hutchins says.
But the major defense of the East Andover Post Office is an argument based on the domino effect.
“When are they going to close Andover?” asks Earle Towne. “Where does it stop?”
“I would be surprised,” adds Sidney Pew, “if Andover even met the revenue criteria.”
The U.S. Postal Service itself is struggling to survive these days. Faced with the twin killers of a major economic recession and an electronic communications revolution (e-mail, text messaging, online banking, and bill paying, etc.), the Postal Service saw the volume of mail it handles drop from 213 billion pieces in 2006 to 170 billion last year. The USPS is now running an $8 billion deficit.
“We have not had a thriving industry since the 1990s when the Internet took off,” says USPS spokesman for Northern New England Tom Rizzo.
Maine’s U.S. Senator Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees the Postal Service, says, however, the USPS can’t solve an $8 billion problem by looking for the $200 million in savings it hopes to find by closing marginal post offices.
“The fact is that maintaining all of our nation’s rural post offices costs the Postal Service less than 1 percent of its total budget,” says Senator Collins. “It is not the cause of the Postal Service’s fiscal crisis.”
According to the Postal Service, the cause of its fiscal crisis is actually legislation that Senator Collins co-authored. The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 contained a provision requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund employee retirement health benefits on an aggressive ten-year schedule.
“The Postal Service must pay $5.5 billion a year,” says spokesman Tom Rizzo. “That is killing us.”
“The USPS blames many of its woes on the pre-funding requirement in the 2006 bill I authored with Senator Tom Carper, of Delaware,” counters Senator Collins. “Yet this very payment obligation, from which the Postal Service now seeks relief, was a recommendation from the Postal Service in 2006.”
The Postal Service would like to be released from the pre-payment requirement to save $5.5 billion a year and be allowed to go to a five-day-a-week delivery schedule, a scheme it believes would save another $3.1 billion a year.
Senator Collins favors “allowing the Postal Service access to the more than $50 billion it has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System and nearly $7 billion that it has overpaid into the Federal Employees Retirement System. A portion of those overpayments could be transferred into the Retiree Health Fund, thus eliminating the need for payments into that fund out of other revenues.”
But she is not bullish on five-day delivery, arguing that eliminating Saturday delivery would “force industries ranging from home delivery of medicines to weekly newspapers to seriously consider other, non-postal options.”
Senator Collins does, however, support what the Postal Service calls its Village Post Office initiative, an ongoing program of providing postal services in supermarkets, drug stores, and other alternatives to freestanding post offices.
There are now 32,000 post offices in the United States, but postage stamps and other postal products and services are also available in seventy thousand other locations.
“In some communities, convenient access could be provided by moving the postal facilities into a local grocery store or pharmacy,” says Collins. “In other rural communities, however, closing the sole post office would leave customers without feasible access to postal services, thus violating the universal service mandate that is the justification for the Postal Service’s monopoly on the delivery of first-class mail.”
Senator Collins cites Cliff Island and Matinicus Island, the two islands on the closure study list, as prime examples of communities without postal options should their post offices close.
Cliff Islander Roger Berle organized the Maine Islands Coalition to advocate for Maine’s fourteen remaining year-round island communities. “It really cuts to the core of the community,” says Berle of the prospect of losing the Cliff Island Post Office. “We’re on a rock surrounded by water. It’s one of the three legs of the stool — the store, the school, the post office.”
Cliff Island, located an hour and a half by Casco Bay Lines ferry from Portland, is home to about fifty year-round residents. Pearl’s Seaside Market is open during the summer and weekends the rest of the years, the island school has a student body of four, and the post office is located in the community hall owned by the Cliff Island Association.
For close to one hundred years, the Cliff Island Post Office was located in someone’s front parlor, but when the Postal Service threatened to close the post office upon the retirement of the post-mistress in 1997, the islanders rallied to its defense, as they are again in 2011.
“It would be another obstacle for year-round residents,” says Rachel Robinov, president of the Cliff Island Association. “We really need to have a post office.”
“All 3,653 post offices are not likely to close,” says Postal Service spokesman Tom Rizzo. “Most probably will. It’s unlikely they are going to be left without some sort of postal service on that island.” Rizzo says post offices will only be closed if there is another post office nearby or if postal services can be delivered in some alternate fashion.
“We’re in the position of not having any alternatives,” says Matinicus Island resident Eva Murray. “We can’t go to the next town. There is no store. There is no Plan B. We can’t risk losing the post office.”
Matinicus is Maine’s most remote island community, twenty-two miles and two hours by boat from Rockland. There are fifty to sixty year-round residents, ten students in the school, and no store.
Eva Murray, the island baker and author of Well Out to Sea: Year-Round on Matinicus Island, explains that the island post office, located in the parsonage of the Congregational Church, is an island lifeline in more ways than mail. Most islanders, for instance, have their groceries flown out from Rockland on Penobscot Island Air. Parts to maintain and repair lobsterboats and the island’s power station are also flown in. The mail contract is what makes it feasible for Penobscot Island Air to serve remote Matinicus.
“If there’s nothing to support the flying service in the winter, we are truly high and dry,” says Eva Murray. “It’s not negotiable. We don’t have options. Without a post office, you’re not a community, you’re an outpost.”
The smart money is on the Maine island post offices to survive this round of closures as the U.S. Postal Service, faced with an uncertain future, looks for ways to consolidate and economize. Unfortunately, it looks as though some far-flung communities in rural Maine will not be so lucky.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Herb Swanson