NORVELL — This little town about 30 miles southwest of Ann Arbor may soon lose a landmark, the village post office.
“The post office is a piece of the fabric of the community,” said Norvell Township Supervisor Adam Ulbin. “People who live in the village all use this post office.”
It would be the end of a long era. Norvell has had a post office for 174 years. Harvey Austin was appointed postmaster in 1838 in a building on what is now called Austin Road. The current post office, one mile further north, was opened in 1943.
Postmaster, Janet Stone, 69, has worked there for 30 years. She is one of two employees and the only full-time employee. Like many small-town post offices, it closes from noon until 1 p.m. during her lunch break.
Stone is proud to tell people about her hometown and post office. She keeps a three-ring binder at the desk with historic photos and notes about the town’s history.
Thousands of small-town and neighborhood post offices in big cities are slated to close this year in an effort to solve the financial problems of the U.S. Postal Service. Norvell is just one of 62 sites in Michigan that are on the chopping block.
Ulbin can’t understand how closing these minor sites will solve the Service’s problems. “It only amounts to a few tenths of one percent of the money they are looking to save,” Ulbin said.
Nevertheless, the Board of Governors of the Postal Service is planning for major downsizing. Besides the closures and job losses, they expect to end Saturday delivery, end overnight delivery and phase out door-to door delivery.
Stopping door-to door delivery will have untold effects on many communities. Letter carriers do more than deliver the mail; they are the eyes, ears and, arguably, the heart of the community.
Veteran mail-carriers all have stories about connecting poorly addressed mail to the intended recipients, assisting elderly patrons, stopping robberies and even saving lives.
Denise Ten Eyck, 52, of Saline is a good example. Once she noticed that a postal patron’s car was outside the house, but his mail had not been picked up. When the mail was still not picked up the next day, she alerted a neighbor who called the police. The customer had fallen and could not get up. Ten Eyck’s vigilance saved his life.
The future of the Postal Service is contentious. Some emphasize the value of the postal service: that it will deliver a letter anywhere for the same low price, that it is still the cheapest way to ship a package, that it serves an important social function. Others contend that it is a relic that should go the way of telegraphs and rotary-dial phones.
Letter-carriers are concerned about the Postal Service itself, as well as saving their jobs. They declared April 12 as “Save America’s Postal Service Day.” On that day they picketed senate offices across the country, including 10 sites in Michigan, to protest a bill to downsize the Postal Service.
“We’re here today to let Senator Levin know that S. 1789 is not a good bill for the Post Office,” said Jamie Gross, 56, from Mason.
Gross organized the protest in front of Senator Carl Levin’s Lansing office, across from the state capitol building.
Gross was joined by perhaps 25 surprisingly cheerful postal workers who carried signs and waved at passing cars their horns often honked in support of the cause. No one was “going postal,” but these protestors had a serious message.
“If we dismantle the system it will be too expensive to replace it,” Gross said.
The workers fear that the draconian cuts in facilities, personnel and services will leave the Service unable to compete with private competitors.
The Postal Service is a public institution, yet it gets its revenue entirely from postage. No tax money is involved.
Their profits have been significantly reduced because of increased use of email, texting and changes in American purchasing trends. But perhaps the biggest reason for the Postal Service’s rising debt has been a rule within a bipartisan bill passed by Congress in 2006 called the Postal Accountability Enhancement Act.
This rule required the Service to set aside money to pre-fund retirees’ health insurance for the next 50 years and gave it 10 years to do it. The act specified $5.5 billion in yearly payouts. No other public or private organization has had this onerous mandate.
On April 25, the Senate passed S.1789, the “21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012.” This bill eases the pre-payment mandate, but still authorizes the Postal Service management to begin downsizing while placing some limits on the pace of change. The bill must also be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and then signed by the president to become law.
Senate Bill S. 1789, like most compromises, upsets people on both sides of the debate. The Republican-controlled House is not expected to make the bill any more acceptable to postal workers.
Whatever the legislative outcome, the postal service will end up leaner. Just since January 2011, 430 post offices have been quietly closed and 240 more given final determination notices according to the website savethepostoffice.com, administered by professor Steve Hutkins of New York University. About 3,700 more postal facilities are slated for possible closure. Expected job loss estimates range from 80,000 to 220,000.
A major piece of Americana seems to be slipping away. For some it may be just a sign of progress. Others, however, argue that we are losing more than we know.