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Rural post office hours may be shortened

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A United States Postal Service plan meant to help save rural post offices would reduce retail hours for nearly 500 post offices across West Virginia, the federal agency announced Wednesday. 

In all, 13,000 post offices nationwide -- including 488 from West Virginia -- are on a preliminary list of post offices under review for possible reduced hours. 

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said "we've listened to our customers in rural America and we've heard them loud and clear -- they want to keep" their post offices open.

"We believe today's announcement will serve our customers' needs and allow us to achieve real savings to help the Postal Service return to long-term financial stability," he said in a statement.

The Postal Service announced that the plan of modifying retail window hours "could" keep the nation's smallest post offices open. Still, it's difficult to say whether the plan means that no more post offices will close, Postal Service spokeswoman Cathy Yarosky said.

"This strategy is specifically for rural post offices, so it would help us to preserve most of them," she said.

Under the plan, customers at rural post offices would retain access to a post office lobby and PO boxes, while each town's zip code would remain the same.

The plan, which would not go into affect until after Labor Day, will roll out over a two-year period.

The new strategy complements existing alternatives for residents in small communities that might lose their post office.

For instance, residents and businesses can receive mail by a rural carrier or a highway contract route. People in affected communities also could contract with a local business to create a Village Post Office or just do business with another nearby post office.   

The Postal Service has set a voluntary moratorium on post office closings through May 15. No closings or changes to operations will happen until after that date, according to the USPS.

"We will of course have community meetings for each post office that is going to be reviewed," Yarosky said. "At the meeting we will review the options in detail so that residential customers have the opportunity to give us feedback."

Once in place by September 2014, the Postal Service expects the plan to save about a half-billion dollars each year, which will help the agency return to financial stability, she said.

"We're modifying existing opportunities in an effort to maintain post offices in rural communities, which is what our customers have told us they want," Yarosky said. "We'll be looking at the nation's smallest post offices and this plan would help keep them open to modify retail office hours."

Last summer, the Postal Service released a list of 3,700 post offices nationwide that the agency was considering closing. One hundred fifty of those post offices are in West Virginia. Yarosky said the Postal Service has held "hundreds" of community meetings over the past two years about rural West Virginia post offices.

Surveys by the Opinion Research Corporation in February showed that 54 percent of rural customers would prefer the new plan to keep their local post office, according to USPS. The other 46 percent preferred either a Village Post Office, services from a nearby post office or expanded rural delivery.

In West Virginia, two offices from last year's list -- Camp Creek and Pence Springs, have closed, Yarosky said.

Workers at several West Virginia post offices declined to make comments, citing a lack of permission to speak with the news media about the matter.

One postmaster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, however, said he and other employees had been told very little so far about the proposed changes.

"They're feeding us a little bit of information at a time," he said. "So far they're saying that in a sense that they're going to look further at the offices and community impact and determine later on [what to do]."

The postmaster said that many of the rural post offices have one postmaster and a contracted carrier. His post office is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a half-hour lunch break. But if the Postal Service were to cut his hours, he would likely have to move elsewhere because he's a full-time employee, he said.

Wednesday's announcement brought both praise and concern from West Virginia's elected federal officials.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he has pushed hard to keep the state's post offices open because "they truly are a lifeline and they provide vital services to so many West Virginians."

In a statement, Manchin said he is encouraged that Donahoe changed course and took a new approach, but the plan is not perfect.

"I expect that if the Postal Service is going to make any changes to the services they are providing to constituents, they will also explore alternative cost-saving measures like reducing executive compensation, getting rid of unused space and ending advertising sponsorships," Manchin said.

On Wednesday, the Postal Service also announced a voluntary retirement incentive for more than 21,000 non-executive U.S. postmasters.

"I will be watching very closely to ensure that our rural communities do not bear the brunt of changes being made at the Postal Service," Manchin said.

 Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said the plan looks good on the surface but he expressed concern with the Postal Service's "constantly shifting plans and lack of information about how its proposals will impact jobs and services in our state.

"This new plan will potentially impact far more West Virginians and it fails to take into account the many other options for reducing costs besides cutting postal jobs and services in rural areas like West Virginia," he said.

"The Postal Service must fix its worsening finances, but it doesn't have to do that at the expense of our state's jobs and services. We need to take responsible steps forward and I intend to have a very candid conversation about this with the Postmaster General during our meeting [today]."

Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said he takes "great comfort in knowing that the people of Southern West Virginia are still a force to be reckoned with.

"Hallelujah! Today's newest Postal Service plan appears to be welcome news for southern West Virginia families and businesses who joined me in the hard fight over these months to save our post offices," Rahall said in a statement. "However, cutting back the hours for so many post offices is no small matter, and we need to examine the details of the plan and get a better understanding of its potential impact on mail delivery services and communities.

"We ought not be shy about letting Postal officials know our views and getting our questions answered," he said.

 For the complete list of post offices under review, http://about.usps.com/news/electronic-press-kits/our-future-network/welcome.htm" target="_blank">see http://about.usps.com/news/electronic-press-kits/our-future-network/welcome.htm

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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