Are Montana’s Rural Post Offices Expendable?

By KELLYN BROWN, for the Flathead Beacon

The Postal Service wants to close the doors of many of its rural post offices. If it does, few places will be impacted as much as Montana. On the list released in July of 3,753 post office branches that may be shuttered, 85 of them were located in our state.

That’s about 2.3 percent of USPS’ target list, while Montana makes up just 0.3 percent of the nation’s population. Yes, this is a rural state with more little-used and far-flung branches. So perhaps we should have expected a disproportionate number of our post offices to be placed on the chopping block.

But now the USPS wants to eliminate processing centers as well, including those in Kalispell and Missoula. And even more jobs are on the line. Forty-five people work at the facility here. It’s unclear how many would end up unemployed if the duty of sorting mail is transferred to Spokane, Wash.

Just about everyone who matters politically in Montana is up in arms about all of this.

Sen. Jon Tester has sponsored the Protecting Rural Post Offices Act, which would require that post offices remain open if they are not located within 10 miles of another one.

Sen. Max Baucus has introduced his own bill that would provide aid to the Postal Service and keep rural post offices in Montana open.

Rep. Denny Rehberg also opposes the closures. At a recent meeting in Highwood, where a branch may be closed, the congressman’s spokesperson said, “You lose your post office, you lose your identity.”

That sentiment has been repeated over the last several weeks. After all, many small town residents consider their post offices more than just a place to get mail. They’re often where neighbors gather to socialize, or, as one Martin City resident aptly put it, “It was a community beehive – everyone came in to get their daily honey.”

Martin City’s post office closed in 2007. There are four area post offices that may meet the same fate; the branches in Dixon, Elmo, Stryker and Olney have been deemed expendable. Many of these communities are already isolated, especially in the winter months, and part of the reason politicians are asking Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe “to prevent closures from disproportionately hurting rural and frontier America.”

To be sure, the consequences go beyond a simple inconvenience. In response to USPS’ proposal to consolidate processing centers, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said it could damage the state’s elections.

Partially because of our high number of rural residents, many of whom live far from polling places, many Montanans vote through the post office. McCulloch pointed out that in the last federal general election, 47 percent of the votes were cast by absentee mail ballot.

“Absurdity. That is the only suitable word I can find to describe the latest in your string of possible closures, layoffs and consolidations to United States Postal Service operations across Montana,” McCulloch wrote in a letter sent to Donahoe.

But the USPS is bleeding money and there is little consensus as to why. While it’s often blamed on fewer people mailing letters, Philip Rubio wrote in the Washington Post that the “current $8 billion deficit is mainly a result of a 2006 congressional directive that the USPS pre-fund all retiree benefits for the next 75 years within 10 years, a financial burden no other agency shares.”

How USPS makes up the difference may involve raising revenue by diversifying what it offers, from retail products to advertising space on its vehicles. The Postal Service must move beyond mail and, it appears, that will happen at the expense of rural customers who rely on it the most.

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Kellyn Brown is a University of Montana graduate who has spent the last several years covering crime, government and social issues as a writer and editor in the Rocky Mountain region. He is the editor in chief at the Flathead Beacon