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Return to Sender: The USPS gets pinched in Central Oregon 

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There isn't much to see in Brothers, Oregon. In fact, there's pretty much only one thing in the tiny outpost along Highway 20 - the Brothers Stage Stop. On the other hand, this isn't just "one thing," really. Inside its weathered walls is the only store, café, gift shop, gas station, saloon and post office you're going to find for about 50 miles in either direction.

But one of the functions of this perfectly Americana shop, and perhaps its most important function for nearby residents, could be disappearing - and that's the post office, which has been operating in the high desert town since 1913.

Dixie Hanna, along with her sister, Jerrie, has owned and operated the Brothers Stage Shop for the past seven years, and during that time Dixie has also served as the postmaster of the closet-sized post office inside her business. Leased by the U.S. Postal Service, the space is home to post office boxes for 30 homes, some of which are an hour or more away. This rural, mostly elderly population relies on the Brothers post office, not just to hold their mail, but, perhaps more importantly, perform shipping services and ensure that specialty deliveries like mail-order prescriptions are handled appropriately.


The U.S. Postal Service has long served as more than just a means for mail delivery, it is an institution that has maintained a sense of connection between the cities, towns and vast rural expanses that make up this county. But times have changed, as has the way we communicate, and that change is financially decimating the USPS.

In the past five years, the amount of first class mail has dropped by a staggering 25 percent. Add to that a $5.5-billion-a-year required payment to its employee fund (as required by a 2006 law) that the USPS is struggling to meet and you've got an agency on the brink of default. For that reason, the USPS is looking at some 3,700 post offices and more than 250 processing centers to close in the coming year. Brothers, and several other rural post offices in Central Oregon, including the office in Sunriver, are on that list. It's also possible that Bend will lose its processing center.

It might be easy to dismiss the value of the tiny post offices in Brothers or Shaniko or Post, but rural residents don't see it that way.

"It would impact this area a lot," says Hanna, coming out from behind the café counter, having just rung up a traveler's snacks and sodas. She leans back on one of the stools, her arms crossed as she looks at the open door to the section of the building that serves as the post office.

"They're all concerned because nobody knows what will happen. It would really be a shame to see this go after almost 100 years," says Hanna.

USPS spokesperson Peter Hass says that while it's all but certain that many of these rural post offices will close, no one will be left totally in the cold. Mail will still be delivered, likely to locked boxes or a village post office, a concept that would place satellite post offices in existing buildings like local government offices or private businesses.

"Certainly the intent is to continue providing service to those costumers. It might be a different mode of delivery, though," says Hass, adding that the USPS is taking a number of factors, including amount of traffic, amount of transactions and the proximity to other post offices, into consideration during this study period. After the study period, the public would still have a chance to voice their opinions should a post office be chosen for closure or reorganization.

IT'S A BUSINESS

"The Postal Service is on the brink of default. The Postal Service requires radical change to its business model if it is to remain viable in the future," Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe testified to Congress earlier this month.

In the days leading up to his testimony, Donahoe remarked that without large-scale adjustments, the USPS would be out of money in the coming months. The problem is simple, at least on the surface. Thanks to email, online bill pay and other electronic conveniences, people aren't mailing nearly as much as they once did and processing centers and post offices built to handle the peak of our nation's mailing volume are now severely underutilized. To put a number on it, the amount of items mailed in the U.S. has decreased by 43 million over the past five years. Also, the USPS can, by law, only raise postage in accordance with the rate of inflation and only engage in certain business practices, meaning their ability to bring in extra revenue is limited.

It's a common misconception that the USPS is funded with taxpayer money while the reality is that the agency has operated in a self-supporting manner for nearly 40 years. If it were a private sector business, the USPS would have come in at number 29 on the 2010 Fortune 500 list. The agency's financial independence, however, hasn't shielded them from the realities of a changing society that's increasingly less reliant on paper correspondence.

The White House has already announced plans to ask Congress to delay the USPS' $5.5-billion benefit payment, due on September 30, and look at other ideas to assist the USPS and prevent a default. But it's already been made clear that there will be no quick or easy fix. Donahoe has suggested several ideas to get the USPS into a financially stable state. Among those measures are ending Saturday mail delivery, the aforementioned facility closures and laying off as many as 120,000 employees, a plan that was immediately criticized by postal unions.

BEND TO PORTLAND TO BEND?

While the August announcement that many, if not all, of Central Oregon's rural post offices were being considered for closure already had our region feeling the impact of the USPS' nationwide financial conundrum, the problem was compounded last week when the Bend mail processing center appeared on a list of possible closures. The USPS plans to cut the number of processing centers nearly in half in the coming year.

Ron Anderson, the USPS's customer relation's coordinator for the Portland Postal District, which covers all of Oregon and parts of southern Washington, doesn't downplay the magnitude of these proposed changes. But he also points out the possible savings that could result.

"This is historical and national in scope. We currently have 500 of these mail processing centers and the possibility is to trim that down to 200. The preliminary projection is that this could save $3 billion a year," says Anderson.

But there would be some changes. Of course, there would be some "personnel changes," as Anderson puts it, but we'd also see some changes as to how we get our mail. While Anderson says no specific plans have been developed should the Bend processing center be closed, it's likely that a piece of mail meant to be mailed from one end of Bend to the other would actually head over to Portland for processing before returning to town. In other words, a 300-mile round-trip for an in-town delivery.

Anderson says that the USPS currently delivers mail in one to three days to anywhere in the country. These changes would, hopefully, only push this goal back by a day.

THE MAIL STILL MATTERS

On this exceptionally scorching September day out in Brothers, Hanna has placed, per instructions, a recently delivered medication in a refrigerator until its owner can arrive to pick it up. Mail-order pharmacies are a relatively new phenomenon and one that's a product of our online dependence, as well as a sign that many people still rely on the USPS, which remains the only service that guarantees delivery to anywhere in the country.

Anderson says that the USPS has taken medications into consideration while looking at all of these changes.

"The postal service has been working with the mail-order pharmacies and looking at what their timeline is for fulfillment [of prescriptions]. We're doing everything we can to work cooperatively with them," says Anderson.

Out in Brothers, Hanna says that her post office receives medications on an almost daily basis. Some of these customers, like the one for whom she's refrigerating this medicine, travel more than half hour, often in harsh winter conditions, just to pick them up. But it's not just medicine, she says. Rural residents rely on delivery of other common items, too, given that placing an online or telephone order is more efficient and cost effective than, for example, traveling more than 100 miles round-trip into Bend.

The way we get our mail is changing. Those at the Brothers Stage Stop seem to have accepted this reality, but that hasn't quelled their uncertainty for the future. Hanna says her customers are, of course, worried and are merely waiting to hear what happens next. The Postal Service will most likely survive this financial turmoil - not without help from Congress - but what is known is that it will be much different from the USPS we all grew up with.

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