Rural plea: 'Don't close the post office!'

Is existence of a post office crucial to a town's identity? Many of the 100 families who live in and around Rodman insist that it is. The town's only grocery store was shut down two years ago for want of business. The brown brick grade school at the south end of two was forced to close down last May for lack of students. Now postal authorities are talking of closing the small, white frame post office on the main street. Some townspeople consider it the beginning of the end.

"I'd really like to see the post office stay open; that's about all that's left in Rodman," insists Mrs. Shriley Horscher, whose husband runs the Rodman grain elevator. "We neighbor ladies gather in there and talk, and it sure beats standing out on the street corner and chatting when it's cold."

"I think those who live here want it to retain their identity as a town. They're a very proud people and there's a lot of history here," confirms Bob Gengler, who runs the post office. He commutes from nearby Whittenmore.

In a small town such as Rodman the post office, with the American flag flying crisply in the breeze, often stands as a symbol of community vitality and a social center, as well as a seller of stamps and mail handler. Mr. Gengler opens the doors at 7:30, and within 15 minutes, while he is still sorting their mail, half a dozen Rodman residents gather in the small entry room to exchange news and chat.

It is precisely that community center role which makes it so difficult for the US Postal Service to reach a decision on whether to close small post offices. Members of Congress, who called a moratorium on all closings for 1 1/2 years in the mid-1970s, have constantly reminded postal authorities of the importance to their constituents of that broader role of the smalltown post office.

Accordingly, the US Postal Service has slowed the number of post office closings from the high of almost 700 a year that prevailed for much of this century to a more modest 120-150 rate in the last few years. And no closing occurs without a lengthy investigation of the prs and cons, including three opportunities for citizens to speak up and derail the plan.

First, postal patrons receive a long questionnaire asking them where they now shop and how their jobs and the community's activity would be affected if the post office were closed. If, after analyzing the results, postal authorities decide a closing is in order, a notice stating why and what kind of alternative service (usually a rural route carrier through whom patrons can buy stamps and mail packages) would be provided is posted on the building. Anyone concerned has 60 days in which to comment.

If the recommendation is still to close, a fianl notice goes up on the building's bulletin board. Anyone objecting to that has 30 days in which to make an appeal to the Postal Rate Commission. Just last year the commission overturned nine proposed closings on grounds that the community impact of the action had not been thoroughly enough explored. It was then that the questionaire was added as the initial step of the process.

There are about 32,000 US post offices around the country now. Pennsylvania leads with 1,776. Postal authorities insist that any decision to shut a post office is never made on economics alone. five years ago a much- discussed General Accounting Office report suggested that 12,000 small post offices could be shut for an important $100 million- a-year saving. But that was before Congress imposed its moratorium, and no one in the Postal Service views closings as a major avenue for saving.

"If we were to close post offices just because they were money losers, we'd be closing them all the time," says Tony Conway, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Washington. "Probably a good 50 percent of our post offices are not money makers."

Just how strongly Rodman residents will object to the closing of their post office remains to be seen. Results of the questionnaires are still being tabulated.

"The objections are usually strongest at first, but rarely is a post office closed these days unless the whole community agreed to it," says Walter Dyer, a spokesman with the Chicago regional office of the US Postal Service.

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