BEALS, Maine — Cost-cutting measures under consideration by the U.S. Postal Service came home to roost Monday in the island community of Beals, where lobster traps easily outnumber people.
The Postal Service has proposed reducing the hours of the tiny post office on the island, which is connected via bridge to the neighboring fishing village of Jonesport. More than 70 people showed up for a meeting at the town office with a postal service official about the proposed reduction, and they were clearly rankled by the prospect. A handful staged a minor protest earlier.
The postal service began implementing reductions in hours of rural post offices in 2012 in order to cut costs. In the latest round of cutbacks, 70 post offices in Maine are targeted, according to Melissa Lohnes, a spokesman for the agency in Boston. The reductions would be implemented in either October or January, she said. As was the case with Beals, postal officials are meeting with residents in other communities where post offices are targeted.
The postal service does not provide delivery to residents of the island, who must retrieve their mail from boxes at the post office.
The postal service has proposed reducing the hours of service from seven hours per day on weekdays to four. The postmistress, Bethanie Beal, said if service is cut to four hours, she will have to find another job. “I’m looking now,” said Beal, who has held the job for 13 years.
Before the 4 p.m. meeting, about a dozen cars and trucks drove in a caravan in a loop around the island, blowing their horns as they passed the post office.
It was standing room only in the town office, with another handful standing outside the open front door, listening. A couple of homemade signs were displayed on the back wall. “We’re happy with our P.O. the way it is,” read a cardboard sign. Another, written on white poster board, proclaimed, “We like our post office the way it is. Beals Island. The way life should be!”
Kevin Clark, senior manager for post office operations for the postal service’s Northern New England District, who works out of Portland, briefed the gathering and fielded questions, smiling and congenial. He was upbeat while he encouraged people to do more business with the post office to increase revenues. Sometimes he launched into lengthy recitations of the travails of the postal service, bemoaning how its figurative hands had been tied behind its back by Congress, hamstrung by having to pre-fund pensions, losing first class mail business to email and the Internet, facing stiff competition for parcel delivery and other calamities.
“Beals is not unique,” said Clark. “Everybody is going through the same process.” Reductions are planned at other post offices as the workload and retail revenue decline, he noted.
According to a fact sheet on the Postal Service website, a 25 percent decline in mail volume since 2007 has reduced annual revenue by $10 billion, despite regular price increases as permitted by law.
The exchange between Clark and islanders was largely civil in tone, although sometimes it bordered on something slightly less than civil.
“Bethanie is no exception,” Clark said early in the meeting.
“Actually, she is an exception,” responded a woman in the audience.
“I clearly understand,” said Clark at another point.
“No, you don’t,” responded a man at the gathering.
“OK,” said Clark. “That’s your opinion.”
The postal service had planned to implement the reductions in service in October but delayed the changes until January 2015, according to Clark.
“That’s why it’s so important to have community meetings,” said Clark. “We want your input.”
The postal service originally considered closing the Beals post office, Clark reminded them. Reducing the hours is the “lesser of two evils,” he said.
“You can say I’m passing the buck. I’m just telling you the facts,” said Clark, who left afterward for a similar community meeting in Addison, where a reduction in post office hours also is proposed.
Earlier this month, the postal service distributed a survey form to postal patrons on the island in which they were given four options, including reducing the weekday hours to four. The other options would have called for a “discontinuance study” and alternatively provided for roadside mailbox delivery, service provided by a contractor out of a local business or box service at another post office.
The postal service distributed 260 of the forms, and 131 were returned. Ninety-four patrons selected the reduction in hours as the preferred alternative, although 33 chose none of the options.
Some people in the audience objected to the wording of the survey, arguing that they were left with little choice but favoring reduced hours.
Using the form provided by the postal service, “almost 100 percent” of postal patrons surveyed prefer a reduction in hours over the other alternatives, said Lohnes.
“I don’t like it,” Sedora Alley said of the planned reduction in hours after a trip to the post office on Monday. Her husband suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, she said.
“If it’s just four hours, it’s gonna be tough for me,” said Alley.