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The Lake George town hall was full Thursday night as residents turned out to discuss the fate of their post office. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Lake George PO losing revenue

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Lake George PO losing revenue
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

The numbers tell an economic tale of woe: the Lake George post office had annual total expenses of $88,378 last year and revenues of $25,500, a net loss of $62,878.

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"We lose money every day we open the Lake George post office," said manager of post office operations Marty Brumbaugh, who oversees 170 post offices.

At most, there are only two hours of actual work each day, but contractually employees must be paid for eight hours. And that's being generous. The U.S. Postal Service estimates the actual Lake George workday at 1.5 hours.

"That's not enough work to justify keeping a position here," Holdingford postmaster Sue Trocke said, reading from a prepared USPS statement.

"So, we're looking at the hard decision of closing the post office."

Closing would save the USPS $69,561 a year; $588,471 over a 10-year period, projections indicate.

The U.S. Postal Service lost $8.5 billion last year.

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Most businesses under such conditions would throw in the towel.

Nonetheless, four-dozen supporters turned up for a public hearing Thursday night to preserve the status quo in Lake George. Residents agreed to mount a petition drive and inundate the USPS and congressional officials with letters opposing a potential closure.

Brumbaugh told the crowd at the outset, "Nothing's definite, nothing's gonna be decided tonight. We're just the messengers."

He and Trocke have conducted two-dozen such meetings in the northern tier of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Lake George's brown log cabin's 110 mailboxes, 98 of which are occupied, has served the region since 1936. In July, it was included on a list of 88 Minnesota postal offices slated to close or morph into operations nestled into existing businesses.

Nationally the post office faces serious financial challenges, Trocke told the audience. From an all time high of delivering 700 million pieces of mail in 2006, the national workload is expected to decline to 445 million pieces of mail by 2020.

The accompanying decline in revenue means the post office is broke, plain and simple. It receives no tax support and since 1975, is theoretically mandated to be self-supporting through the sale of stamps.

But more people are conducting business electronically and shop via the Internet. Stamp sales have plummeted.

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Lake George box holders, if the facility were to close, would have a couple options, Brumbaugh said. They could have Highway Contract Route delivery to their driveways or get post office boxes in Bemidji or Laporte.

HCR operations, "post offices on wheels," could handle the same services a post office could, both Trocke and Brumbaugh explained.

"Through your rural carrier, you can buy stamps, purchase postage for the packages you send, put your mail on hold, purchase money orders and more," the USPS statement said. "Virtually anything that you do at your local post office you can also do with your carrier."

But in some cases, that might entail an address change, and the audience seemed most concerned about that.

The remaining option, if the post office closes, would be to convert it to a "Village Post Office" run by an existing business. Many audience members wondered if the Woodland Convenience Store next door to the post office could assume the operations, but Woodland owners did not attend the meeting and Brumbaugh said such speculation is premature since no final decision has been made to close.

Federal law would not allow the post office to curtail hours of operation to meet declining services. That would take congressional approval, Trocke said.

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Resident Jan McKay worried that the historic significance of the post office would be lost in a closure, along with the town's identity. Thousands of tourists come through the hamlet each summer to pose for pictures at the site of the building at the main intersection of Lake George.

"Consider the historic value of this little post office," she implored the crowd.

Other changes have been announced such as closing postal plants in several cities, including Bemidji. The plan would call for a centralized plant in the Twin Cities area.

That might result in mail delivery over a two to four-day period, Tropke admitted. Mail would be "hubbed" at a site such as St. Cloud, then transferred to a plant for eventual delivery.

"The service standards would have to change," Brumbaugh agreed.

A proposed five-day mail delivery bill is winding its way through Congress, but it could take years to pass and wouldn't ameliorate the Lake George situation.

Residents were given written surveys to complete last month. They are also allowed to send letters of support and Trocke invited those.

One point in Lake George's favor is that Congress has voiced reluctance to close post offices that are more than 10 miles away from another facility. Lake George is 13 miles from Laporte.

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Longtime postmaster Iris Olson was the subject of much of the discussion, as many residents and neighbors didn't want to see her lose her job.

Brumbaugh explained a complicated process of staffing takes place to ensure job security if the facility should close. Again, he said, it would be premature to discuss it at this stage.

Olson, her assistant and a rural carrier all received a hearty round of applause at the service they've given the community.

All levels of postal management will consider the decision. A final determination will be made in Washington, D.C. and relayed to Lake George.

That decision is then posted for 30 days and customers have the right to appeal a negative decision.

"The proposal must explain the services recommended as substitutes and the rationale that supports this recommendation," postal regulations state.

The Postal Regulatory Commission then has 120 days to uphold a closing or overturn a decision to close.

There is still a 60-day period after that if the decision remains to close.

"We're looking at four months at least," Trocke said.

Congress mandates that the post office break even, but the 32,000 facilities are hemorrhaging money nationwide, losing $25 million a day, Trocke said.

The post office has borrowed $15 billion from the U.S. Treasury, the capped amount set by Congress, and in September missed a $5.2 billion prepayment for retiree health benefits.

Although economic considerations are factored into the reason to investigate closing services, it's the dwindling workload that worries postal officials.

Strong labor unions and the snail's pace of legislative change are hampering the ability to make quick and sweeping changes to right the ship, Brumbaugh said.

"It's not going to be as easy; it's not going to be as efficient," Brumbaugh predicted of the future of mail service.

"This is taking Lake George in a bad direction," said resident Rolfe Ericson.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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