County appeals to U.S. Postal Service

The Madison County’s commissioners have asked the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to reconsider its implementation of reduced hours in the Virginia City Post Office from eight hours to four hours per day.

The Virginia City Post Office is now open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m.–9:45 a.m. The post office is closed on Sundays, but box holders are able to access their post office boxes Monday through Sunday at all hours.

The change was implemented last spring despite the commissioners and others in Virginia City asking the USPS to reconsider. Commissioner Dave Schulz recently explained those reasons to USPS’ Denise Robbins, manager of USPS operations for western Montana based in Missoula, in an emailed letter dated Jan. 8. Hours in Cameron, Pony and Alder were also shortened. The changes came as part of the USPS’ ongoing plan to re-shape rural post offices in an effort to save money. The plan is officially called the Post Plan. It is slated to save the USPS about $500 million, according to USPS spokesman Pete Nowacki.

Chelsee Mahffman, who works every couple of weeks in the Virginia City Post Office, said the shortened hours require more work be done at the post office in the same amount of time as before. She said that she knows people have tried to schedule their days differently, but may not always have success finding the time to get to the post office.

“We feel it is unfortunate and even unfair that the Virginia City Post Office is the only USPS facility in a Montana county seat that has been considered for this scheduling change,” Schulz state in the email. “No other postal service in the state at a county seat, large or small, is on this ‘hit list’.”

Toni James, owner of Rank’s Mercantile, said she has seen the effects of the shortened hours in her store. James said she sells stamps of almost every kind at the store for people who need them, especially during the summer, but the post office is closed. She said she does not want people to be unhappy, particularly those who are visiting and want to send a letter or post card to someone and have it postmarked in Virginia City.

According to Schulz, number of county employees from various offices are concerned about the timeliness of receiving letters, requests, legal documents, court documents, vehicle license renewals, plates and other examples of business mail, as well as getting responses to those items out to the public due to the material’s time-sensitive nature.

Lisa Frye in the motor vehicle licensing office said the shortened hours have hurt her office’s customer service because they have less time to process vehicle registrations and get them sent back out. According to Schulz, the county once had till 3:30 p.m. to complete the daily tasks of collecting the mail, delivering it to the appropriate office, processing requests and formulating responses and then sending them out in the mail the same day. Now he says mail arrives around 10 a.m. and is delivered to the appropriate office where the same steps occur, except staff must have it ready to go back out by 12:30 p.m., when the post office closes.

“It is painful,” Patty Davis in the county attorney’s office said of the shortened hours and the fact that she is now often unable to get mail out in a timely manner. “Now I send it out basically a day late.”

Schulz reasoned in his email to Robbins that the Madison County Courthouse is the oldest in the state and that the Virginia City Post Office is equally the oldest operating post office in Montana. He added that the county plans to continue with business of the public into the future as it has in the past. Therefore, it is imperative the postal service in Virginia City does the same.

Nowacki said Virginia City is one of more than 13,000 post offices nationwide covered under the May 2012 Post Plan announcement. Customers were surveyed and a public meeting was held in the fall of 2012. On Dec. 6, 2012, USPS announced that weekday retail window hours would be reduced to four hours per day. He added there are no further changes to service planned.

Madison County’s total budget for 2012-13 USPS related-needs was $47,000, according to Schulz.

“It should be very close to that again this year,” he said. He added that these costs and the importance of working together, which has happened for more than 100 years, are very clearly not considered in the USPS’ decision.

The USPS’ change has greatly hindered how Madison County is able to do business, Schulz said, but it has also complicated residents’ access to their post office in Virginia City in much the same way.

Virginia City resident Abby Thomas works in Ennis, which only complicates her ability to collect packages or utilize other window services at the Virginia City Post Office. She said she leaves for work before the post office is open and returns home after it closes. Thomas added she believes adding lockers for after-hour package pick up would improve the service for other people like her.

Debbie Rogers, who also lives in Virginia City but works from home, said the change has not affected her greatly and she has become accustomed to the new hours.

“I believe it should be open full-time because Virginia City is the county seat,” she said.

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