Saving small town post offices

January 15, 2014 09:31 am

The holiday season is the busiest time of the year for the United States Postal Service as millions mail holiday cards and packages to loved ones. It’s amazing that it only costs 46 cents to send one of those cards across the country safely and quickly.

At the time of year when we reflect on what we are thankful for, let us recognize what the United States Postal Service means to us. Throughout rural Oregon the post office serves as a lifeline for basic necessities, offering essential services that help local businesses, farmers and ranchers prosper and provide jobs. 

Rural Oregonians are fighting to save our postal service. In 2006, Congress passed a law forcing the USPS to pre-fund retiree benefits 75 years in advance, a requirement imposed on no other business. Prompted by corporations like FedEx, Congress also restricted the services the USPS can legally provide. 

These blows weakened the USPS and forced it to shift its main priority from delivering mail to surviving financially. Rural Oregonians, small towns and local businesses suffer the consequences. 

Our communities need and deserve more. Working with the Rural Organizing Project and Oregon Rural Action, small towns are banding together and declaring that we can do better.

As our economy continues to shift, why can’t the USPS change with it? What if we expanded delivery to seven days? What if post office lobbies were open 24/7 as places to rest and get out of the weather? Most of rural Oregon does not have access to broadband Internet. Every small-town post office does. What if post offices opened their broadband for community access?

Congressional restrictions phased out copying services and phone card sales. What if our post office was allowed to compete for that business?

The USPS used to offer postal banking, a service many countries’ postal services provide today. If returned here, might that boost the local economies of rural towns across the country?

Postmasters and rural letter carriers often check in on folks when their mail piles up. Why not allow families to contract with mail carriers to check in on the elderly or to pick up needed grocery items in town?

Post office lobbies are hubs for spreading the latest community news and organizing responses to natural disasters. Let’s think creatively about strengthening the role of rural post offices. What if lobbies included book exchanges, tool-lending libraries or a one-stop shop for government services? What if rural post offices could sell fishing and hunting licenses? 

For the last two years, small towns in rural Oregon have been scrambling to save their local post offices. Forty three were slated for immediate closure, but were spared thanks to tireless organizing by those communities. When 124 post offices faced severe hour and service cuts, some were closed, and many now operate just a few hours a day without a postmaster. The Salem mail processing plant was closed in June, and Oregon mail processing plants are slated to close in Pendleton and Springfield. The Pendleton closure means that sending a letter from Baker City to La Grande will require a 560-mile trip to and from Portland’s mail processing plant.

In a country where not a cent of our taxes goes to fund the USPS, it is time to address the priorities that we Americans hold. Shouldn’t the ability to send a letter affordably and reliably be at the top of those priorities?

Small towns often get by without libraries, schools and other basics — some struggle just to have their phone lines maintained. Rural Oregonians are fighting to make rural living available for future generations. Expanding the services post offices provide is what rural Oregonians need to thrive. We believe this does not need to cost more, but it does require that policy makers put the wellbeing of our communities first.

Work to protect and expand the role of small town post offices is under way in small towns throughout Oregon. To get involved, contact Oregon Rural Action or the Rural Organizing Project.


My Voice

Bill Whitaker lives in La Grande and is a board member of Oregon Rural Action and the Rural Organizing Project.

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