Thursday, December 8, 2011

Efforts to save county post offices more strategic as time passes

As the January, 2012 closure of numerous post offices creeps nearer, it is time for another post about post offices. This one will focus again on Newton County, Arkansas, my home county, where six of the county's 10 U.S. Post Offices are on the chopping block. Read an earlier post here.

One thing I've noticed in Newton County Times coverage of more recent community meetings about specific proposed closures is that the various communities seem to be learning from prior community meetings and getting more organized and sophisticated in their efforts. That is affecting how they approach these meetings, including the types of arguments they make. In this post, I'm going to discuss the efforts of four Newton County post offices: Compton and Ponca, in the northwestern part of the county, Mt. Judea and Vendor in the south, southeastern part, and Parthenon, which is about 5 miles southwest of Jasper, the county seat. In short, the residents of these communities are invoking both practical and nostalgic arguments for saving their post offices, and they seem far better organized than the communities who met with U.S. Post Office officials earlier in the process, like those reported on here.

The Oct. 26, 2011 issue of the Times reports that patrons of the Mt. Judea and Vendor post offices are using a petition drive and sending form letters to both the U.S. Postal Service and to Arkansas's Congressional Delegation in their effort to avert closure of their local post offices. They have also worked to get people out to the community meetings, one at the Mt. Judea School cafeteria on Nov. 29 and one at the Log Hall Church in Vendor on Nov. 14. Organizers met prior to these formal meetings with district U.S. Post Office personnel, to strategize and make publicity banners. Organizers are taking petitions and comment sheets from home to home to gather signatures and offer assistance with letter writing to the areas U.S. Senator and Representative. The petition cites the needs of "our elderly and handicapped people [who] depend on the post office for many things like their medicine or medical supplies." It continues:
Our small and home-based businesses depend on the post office as well. Some would have to drive twenty to thirty miles, one way, just to mail their packages.
* * *
One of the basic functions of the postal service is to bind our nation together. Our rural post offices are a vital part of our Nation, our culture, and our livelihood.
The Oct. 19, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times announces that a "Grassroots committee" is working to save the post office at Compton. Like many other community meetings, the official opportunity for Compton patrons to meet with the U.S. Post Office representative occurred at a church, the County Line Baptist Church, on Nov. 1. Compton postal patrons have been active since the proposed closures were announced in late July. They immediately erected a banner "along state Highway 43, near the post office that reads, 'Save the Compton Post Office: No Shut Down." The Committee to Save the Compton Post Office is comprised of seven families, including a retired attorney from Harrison. (Co
mpton is on the Newton-Boone County line, and Harrison is the regional center, Boone County's seat). The retired attorney, Scott Covington, is apparently pursuing a legal(istic) argument about the inadequacy of notice of the proposed closures, an argument I saw echoed by a Parthenon resident who is also a lawyer. Along with the Committee, members of the Compton Volunteer Fire Department have circulated petitions opposing the post office's closure.

Subsequent issues of the Times report on the meetings at Compton and Vendor. When asked by a Vendor resident what the community had done to get on the list of proposed closures, the district post official, Shane Davis, replied "less than $50/day in revenue."

One patron noted that he receives medicine via mail from the Veteran's Administration, and he is worried about the safety of getting the medicine delivered to a rural mailbox or cluster box unit. Others mentioned similar security concerns related to receipt of checks.

A highway contract carrier who serves the Vendor and Parthenon Post Offices, in addition to two others in the county, noted that 70 of the 100 miles he drives each day are on dirt roads. (Top photo is of a highway contract carrier delivering mail near Yardelle, Arkansas, November, 2011; smaller photo above right is of U.S. Post Office, Hasty, Arkansas).

State Senator Randy Laverty of Jasper appeared at the Vendor meeting, along with State Representative David Branscum of Marshall, in neighboring Searcy County. The newspaper reported Laverty's comments:
Newton County residents and elected officials face problems daily like no other population group in Arkansas. He noted that almost 60% of Newton County is publicly owned, mostly by the federal government. 'That is crippling for the county.' He pointed out that the Newton County Quorum Court recently had to raise the tax millage to cover a $42,000 deficit. He said the county doesn't have public transportation. 'We depend on a pretty primitive level of support.' He explained that Newton County has 'unique geographic areas, low water bridges and canopies over roadways.' He tipped his hat to rural carriers as they travel the challenging terrain.
Laverty's comments don't seem to have a whole lot to do with the the proposed post office closures, except I guess to make the point that if you live in one of these communities and must travel farther to get to a post office, it's a greater hardship than in a metropolitan area, where the roads are surely better and public transportation might even be available.

Laverty also appeared at the last of the county's meetings, the one in Mt. Judea on Nov. 29. There Laverty argued that the U.S. Post Office has pitted communities against one another by requiring each to prove why it is unique and therefore should be permitted to keep its local post office. As in his comments at the Vendor meeting, Laverty emphasized things that Newton County lacks, including a public transportation system. He also noted that the county had the state's lowest per capita income in 2000. Laverty asserted that these rural communities are more dependent on local postal service than are urban areas.

The transportation challenges associated with Newton County were also discussed at the meeting regarding the proposed closure of the Parthenon Post Office on Nov. 15. One Parthenon patron said that he sometimes has to paddle a canoe across a stream to get his mail, when the rivers are up. At those times, the rural mail carrier leaves mail at the Parthenon post office for residents to collect when they can. Like many patrons at other meetings around the county, those at Parthenon noted that some of them already travel a mile or more just to get to their rural mail box.

At the Compton meeting on November 1, one patron read a letter from Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape, a Compton resident. The letter noted that the county is the last Arkansas County not to be 911 addressed and that local post masters are helpful in directing public safety to the right residence. The sheriff also expressed concern about "people shipping parcels from home," noting that "leaving parcels and money for the mail carrier unsecured invites theft." Similarly, residents at the Parthenon and Mt. Judea meetings spoke of concerns about the safety of their mail carriers if they must conduct postal transactions for customers, a solution suggested by district representatives of the post office. Several former postmasters and current mail carriers mentioned that they are already heavily burdened and do not have time to conduct these transactions for those on their routes.

The efforts of the Compton residents to quantify and document their need for a post office also highlights the digital divide between rural and urban, poor and rich. Compton residents who circulated a petition presented their analysis of it at the meeting. They found that for every person who uses the Internet, two do not. Most who have Internet access have a slow dial-up connection, making the computer unreliable for conducting business. The committee noted that for others, "the purchase of a computer and subscribing to Internet service is cost prohibitive. Cell phone service is also spotty." Finally, Compton does not have any business between the "community limit signs" where a "village post office" could be sited.

At a minimum, the Compton community is asking for a "rural non-personnel" unit that would be housed at the existing facility. Under this proposal--and apparently consistent with postal service regulations--"the rural route carrier would open the office for a minimum of 15 minutes a day at a specified time for customers to come and conduct their business."

The Mt. Judea meeting was one of the best attended, with 147 people present (in sharp contrast to the 14 present at Ponca on Nov. 17). One focus at that meeting was Mt. Judea school's reliance on the post office, and one patron expressed fear that if the community loses its post office, it will be that much closer to also losing its school. (Read more about the state of the Mt. Judea school here). Another patron observed that 10 different communities rely on the Mt. Judea post office, many of which previously had their own post office. Hers were not the only arguments referencing history and invoking nostalgia.


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