The U.S. Postal Service said Tuesday it would study closing about 3,700 of its branches across the country, including 34 in Maine.
The agency currently has almost 32,000 retail offices across the nation. The plan would save an estimated $200 million.
“Our customer’s habits have made it clear that they no longer require a physical post office to conduct most of their postal business,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a Tuesday news release. More than 35 percent of the Postal Service’s retail revenue comes from expanded access locations such as grocery stores, drug stores, retail chains, self-service kiosks and online at usps.gov, he said.
The offices being considered for closure in Maine are mostly rural, from St. David and Grand Isle in the north down to Paris and North Waterford in the south and hitting coastal communities and islands like Matinicus and Cliff Island.
In Grand Isle, a town of 467 people in northern Aroostook County, resident Denise Cote said, on the occasions she does go into the town’s post office, it is usually busy.
“Everyone knows everyone else who walks in there,” she said. “It’s been there so long.”
In Passadumkeag, site of another potential closure, customers were scarce in the afternoon hours, with most coming in the early morning.
With 114 post office boxes and a single customer window, the Passadumkeag office is small and unassuming. It is open for customer service from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. weekdays and for three hours and 45 minutes on Saturdays.
One customer, Sue Cronkhite, who lives in town, said she would miss the convenience of having a post office within walking distance.
“I only get to come here for mail on Saturdays because I work during the week and the office isn’t open when I get out,” Cronkhite said. “I probably would only get my mail two or three times a month without this being here.”
Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the USPS in Northern New England, said there are about 420 retail offices in Maine, and about 3,000 people work for the agency in the state. He said it was too early to tell how many of those jobs may be affected by the plan — and that the plan was still a work in progress.
“This is an initial roll-out of offices for us to study based on criteria established by headquarters, this should not suggest that every study will result in a closure,” said Rizzo. “It’s a case-by-case consideration of how additional community-based access points can supplement local services in ways that help us extract some overhead operating expenses, and we’ll follow up as we learn more.”
At the East Newport office, things were fairly quiet just after 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The acting postmaster, Barbara Henkle, declined to comment and referred all questions to Rizzo.
“East Newport is one of 3,700 offices that are identified on that list that came out today,” Rizzo said. “We have someone measure just how much work there is for a clerk or a postmaster. There’s not even a minimum amount of work in that office to justify having it open for an entire day.”
According to Rizzo, the office on U.S. Route 2 about three miles from downtown Newport “has very low foot traffic.”
For roughly 45 minutes on Tuesday afternoon, no customers entered the building.
“These are just offices that we are going to study to see if we can provide an equivalent level of service through one of those alternate locations or another post office,” Rizzo added, referring not only to the East Newport branch but others throughout the state.
The closures wouldn’t affect mail delivery, Rizzo stressed.
While small-town branches are the focus of the closure study, there are also a few urban offices being considered, including the Water Street branch in Augusta and Station A in Portland, on Congress Street. The USPS considered closing Station A several years ago as part of a plan to close 1,000 offices nationwide. The proposal to close Station A drew a lot of protest from residents around that part of the city as well as from members of the congressional delegation.
Rizzo said the USPS would file a request for an advisory opinion related to the plan to close retail offices with the Postal Regulatory Commission on Wednesday. That commission will conduct a review, and the public will have a chance to comment, Rizzo said. No offices eventually approved for closure would be shuttered by December, Rizzo said.
The USPS said in its release that the move was being considered as the need for the breadth of retail offices diminishes. Rizzo noted that a 2006 federal law mandates that the USPS contribute $5.5 billion each year to a future retiree’s health benefit fund; the service is projected to lose $8 billion this year, and the $5.5 billion is part of that, said Rizzo.
“We’ve also suffered from an increasingly accelerating drop in the volume of first-class mail, and mail volume in general, since the advent of the Internet and email,” said Rizzo.
“Since 2006, our mail volume has dropped in total over 20 percent, from a high of 213 billion pieces in 2006 to roughly 170 billion today,” he said.
And the recent recession has hit the USPS, as well.
“The Postal Service has always reflected the state of the economy, said Rizzo. “When businesses are doing well, they advertise more, solicit more.”
The USPS has been self-supporting for 40 years, operating without tax dollars. It can borrow up to $15 billion in total from the U.S. Treasury, and hadn’t needed to take that route until 2006. But economic conditions and changing consumer habits have forced cutbacks in recent years, said Rizzo, who noted that the USPS had 800,000 employees in 2000, and roughly 550,000 today nationwide.
“The way people communicate, the way people shop, the way people do business, has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, and the self-supporting U.S. Postal Service must change with it,” said Rizzo.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in a statement Tuesday that the financial challenges faced by the USPS should not preclude the preservation of universal postal service and convenient community access.
“It is critical we carefully assess the potential impact of these proposed closures, especially as it relates to service in rural communities,” said Snowe. “I am encouraged USPS intends to work with community retailers to continue providing postal services in affected communities and I will closely monitor this situation to ensure that, in the event of any post office closures, USPS continues to meet the needs of rural customers in Maine and nationwide.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who in February introduced legislation aimed at reforming the postal service, said in a Tuesday statement that maintaining rural post offices costs less than 1 percent of the department’s total budget and wasn’t the cause of its financial problems.
“While there are some areas where postal services could be consolidated or moved into a nearby retail store to ensure continued access, this simply is not an option in many rural and remote areas,” said Collins. “For example, Matinicus Island is about 20 miles off the coast of Maine and receives mail five — rather than six — days a week, and then only in good weather. Closing this post office or moving it into a large retail facility is simply not realistic.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michuad, D-Maine said the Postal Service needed to address it’s financial problems, but not by reducing “vital services for rural Mainers.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, noted in a statement that the post office branches in many rural Maine communities fill several roles.
“In my hometown of North Haven the post office is a place to meet your neighbors and share information, and it brings people into the center of town,” said Pingree. “In many communities, businesses rely on the traffic that a post office generates. The Postal Service needs to find ways to cut costs but I don’t think closing the small post offices that are the backbone of so many towns is the best way to do it.”
In its announcement Tuesday, the USPS also revealed a new program for communities without a postal retail office and for communities affected by the announced “retail optimization efforts.”
The “village post offices” would be operated by local businesses, such as pharmacies, grocery stores and other appropriate retailers, and would offer postal products and services such as stamps and flat-rate packaging.
The village post offices may begin to fill that community role, Rizzo suggested.
“Perhaps it will help fill that niche,” said Rizzo. “The fact is our primary purpose is binding the country together with communications. We think this is the way to the future.”
BDN reporters Nick Sambides Jr. and Ryan McLaughlin and BDN contributor Julia Bayly contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated there were 120 U.S. Postal Service retail offices in Maine. There are 420.