Neal Fitzpatrick of the U.S. Postal Service answers questions at the Lake Hill firehouse. (photo by Violet Snow)

Starting in late January or early February, the retail counter at the Lake Hill post office will be open only four hours a day on weekdays, with boxes accessible at least eight hours a day, announced Neal Fitzpatrick, Manager of Post Office Operations for the Westchester District, at a community meeting on Tuesday, November 13. Home delivery will remain unchanged, as will Saturday hours of 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Fitzpatrick told an audience of 20 at the Lake Hill firehouse.

Some of the listeners expressed anxiety about the reduced hours, fearing that they would have difficulty obtaining services given their work schedules. Fitzpatrick answered questions even-handedly, and most of the audience seemed to accept the changes as preferable to closing the post office.

Surveys were mailed to 179 Lake Hill residents asking their preferences regarding the fate of the post office. Of the 90 respondents, 81 said they favored reduced hours, three said they would prefer to use nearby offices, and three made no selection. A number of those choosing reduced hours suggested having the office open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Its current hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

One audience member suggested a change to 8 a.m. to noon or 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., to accommodate full-time workers. Fitzpatrick said most offices close before 5 p.m. to facilitate timely pickup of mail and delivery to the Newburgh station for routing elsewhere, but opening at 8 a.m. would be considered. The actual four-hour opening period, either morning or afternoon, will be determined over the coming months, based on feedback given at the meeting, the receipt of additional surveys and comments, hours chosen by nearby post offices, and security issues.

The Woodstock and Bearsville offices will remain on their current schedules, providing retail services when the Lake Hill office is closed.

Fitzpatrick said modifications may be made to the Lake Hill building to accommodate 24-hour access to boxes, or a timelock may be installed to keep the lobby open during the daytime hours even when the retail counter is closed, as well as on Saturdays and Sundays. That decision will also be made over the next few months.

Ten to 15 parcel lockers will be installed to serve the 200 or so mail boxes. When a parcel arrives, it will be placed in one of the lockers, and the key will go into the recipient’s mail box, so they can pick up the parcel during off hours.

Someone asked about security at the unattended building, and a resident replied, “I’m the post office security. I live 50 feet away. Any time I see anything wrong, I call the cops. It’s rare.” Fitzpatrick acknowledged that security is a consideration and will be taken into account in decision-making.

 

Better option than closing

“We realize that minimizing retail hours is hard on you,” said Fitzpatrick. “But we’re facing some severe financial shortages in the post office. A year ago, we were out here discussing closing post offices, with no options, no surveys. Based on feedback, we scrapped that idea. Plan B is to take the money available, which is limited, spread it around, and make sure we stay in every community. Some communities are down to two hours a day, some four, some six. People adjust.”

The Internet is largely responsible for the dwindling revenues, said Fitzpatrick, “We’re down over 60 billion pieces of mail per year, and it’s not coming back. We’re up against the wall.”

The cutbacks are expected to save $500 million per year, but as one audience member pointed out, that amount is only 10 percent of the postal service’s annual deficit. He asked how the remainder of the shortfall will be addressed.

“Our plan is to work with Congress to look at the regulations,” replied Fitzpatrick. “We don’t mind congressional oversight, but for instance, we are the only company in America, public or private, that’s required to pay health benefits 80 years in advance.” He said $4 billion to $6 billion per year could be saved by changing the health benefit regulation. Another possibility is reducing delivery from six days a week to five, which would save another $3 billion.

Congress has already rejected one proposal, to let the post offices generate more revenue by adding banking and motor vehicle services to their retail counters.

“We’re not looking for bailouts,” said Fitzpatrick, emphasizing that the postal service is not a government agency and receives no tax money. “We’re regulated by government oversight, but we operate as an independent business.”

 

Fully open during holiday season

In the days of more mail, he said, the business model involved periodically raising the price of stamps. For a while, the service would make a profit, then it would break even for a few years, then operate at a deficit. Then a new price hike would start the cycle again. Even in the best of times, 95 percent of post offices lost money each year, with the larger urban centers making up the shortfall.

Last year, immediately after Hurricane Irene, post office officials visited the flooded offices at Mount Tremper and Prattsville. “We could have said, ‘This post office is destroyed,’ and just walked away,” said Fitzpatrick, “but we realize post offices mean a lot to people. You meet your friends, talk to the postmistress, look at the bulletin boards. This plan buys us quite a few years.”

Customers will be given a month’s notice before the new hours go into effect, several weeks after the end of the holidays. “During the Christmas season, everything stays the same,” Fitzpatrick reassured his audience. “You’ll see smiling faces eight hours a day.”

“It’s a quaint little post office,” said Lake Hill postmistress Margaretha Jones after the meeting. “I just want to continue serving people’s needs. It’s a little community, and everyone enjoys coming in. I want to do whatever I can to help.”