- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2010

HACKER VALLEY, W.Va. | Retha Casto doesn’t pay her bills online, connect with friends through Facebook or use the Global Positioning System for directions. So when the U.S. Postal Service decided after 153 years to suspend operations at the Hacker Valley post office, the 87-year-old woman picked up her pen.

“For God’s sake and yours too please think of the people — not just the money,” she pleaded to the federal Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the Postal Service.

Mrs. Casto’s three-page, handwritten letter has spurred the commission to investigate whether the Postal Service violated procedures or the will of Congress when it shut down Hacker Valley and 96 other post offices in 34 states over the past five years.

The cutbacks, which come as the financially ailing Postal Service struggles with a sharp decline in mail because of the Internet and the recession, have fallen most heavily on poor, rural communities, where the post office is not just a place to buy stamps, but a gathering spot where townspeople trade news and gossip.

The post offices are typically modest operations, situated in leased space in the backs of general stores or in other buildings.

The Postal Service cited an emergency soon-to-expire leases in suspending operations at the nearly 100 post offices. Ultimately, 25 were officially closed, five are facing closure, and Hacker Valley and 64 others are in limbo. Only two have reopened. One of them was in McCausland, Iowa, where community members held yard sales, pig roasts and bake sales to raise money to build a new post office.

At issue in the dispute is the distinction between closing a post office and suspending service.

Under federal law, closings require 60 days’ notice, opportunities for public comment, an accounting of the reasons for the decision and an opportunity for residents to appeal.

Suspensions, which are supposed to be used during natural disasters, health or safety hazards or unanticipated lease problems, do not carry the same requirements.

Under suspensions, “the office is not closed, but as far as customers are concerned it’s not open,” said Norm Scherstrom, a Postal Regulatory Commission spokesman.

Last fall, the commission said the evidence strongly suggests that the Postal Service used suspension procedures at the Hacker Valley post office in July to skirt the closing requirements laid out by Congress. It rejected the argument that the loss of the lease constituted an emergency, noting that the landlord had given at least three years’ notice.

The commission is still investigating the suspensions and could refer the matter to Congress. Townspeople in many of the communities, including Midland, Ohio; Coralville, Iowa; Crescent Lake, Ore.; Prairie City, S.D.; Laketon, Ind.; and Howell, Utah, are hoping Congress intervenes and rescues their post offices.

Postal Service spokesman Greg Frey declined to comment on the investigation.

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