Monday, January 16, 2012

A Round of Alplaus

In rural communities post offices are more than places to buy stamps. During my school's winter break I visited the town of Alplaus in upstate New York which, due to bizarre circumstances, faces losing an important part of its identity despite the present moratorium on postal closures. The Alplaus CPO was forced to close its doors on January 6. Residents felt as though they were losing a part of their community's soul.

This situation is partly due to a bizarre provision in a USPS—APWU contract signed last April, which explicitly designates exactly 20 CPUs (Contract Postal Units) and CPOs (Community Post Offices – a type of CPU) for closure. The provision is supposed to ensure a maximum amount of work for union clerks and/or rural carriers, but its primary effect is the arbitrary inconvenience of affected communities, including several towns in the Northeast. You can read the provision here: APWU, USPS Tentative Contract.

Among those 20, the Community [Contract] Post Offices (CPOs) in Alplaus, New York and Boscawen, New Hampshire closed the first Friday of this year. The Alplaus CPO made $40,000 a year – net, not gross. That is, USPS profited by $40,000 a year due to this location, and still closed it. The operation was scheduled to be discontinued (terminated) outright, but a letter from Colorado converted it to a suspension earlier during the week. More about that later.

When it was suggested to me during finals by Andy Gilpin, President of the Alplaus, New York Residents Association, that I visit the small town just north of Schenectady to document a post office that would close January 6... well, obviously I was heading up!

Alplaus (prounced AHL-plause) is derived from Aal Plaats, Dutch for place of eels. (Alplaus lies along the Mohawk River – the Hudson's largest tributary.) The location has served as the setting for a couple of historic events, including that shown on a state historic plaque, below.

The town has been around for quite some time, and so too has its post office. Town historian Cliff Hayes notes: "National archives and records administration states Alplaus PO was first commissioned Oct. 4, 1888 to Joseph Hanigan. Hanigan operated hay and feed business located at the railroad tracks ... The PO served the many crop farmers in the vicinity; mail being transported by train from Schenectady." Discontinued in 1908 (possibly due to the advent of Rural Free Delivery), it was reestablished in 1922. The office has operated as a contract unit since 1973.

In the past, when the Post Office Department (or, now, USPS) discontinued a post office, it would often be replaced by a contract operation known as a rural branch or rural station. Those terms have since been replaced with the catch-all CPO. CPOs could still be established anywhere USPS's newfangled "Village Post Office" could go; except the latter offer far fewer services to the affected communities.

A truck picks up the day's mail at the CPO:

Before its postal operations were established as a CPO, there was question as to whether Alplaus would retain its office at all. Longtime Postmasters for both Rexford and Alplaus operated post offices out of their homes, and both retired in 1972. The Postal Service wanted to combine the two operations in a new building, but the town feared losing its identity and center of social life – just as it does today. With the help of Congressman Sam Stratton, the decision was eventually made to house Alplaus postal operations on a contract basis.

The Alplaus Post Office, ca. 1910. Courtesy Cliff Hayes.

(If the above photo looks familiar, it's probably because that building has housed the post office, with just a couple years' exception, to the CPO of the present day.)

The town also successfully fought an effort by USPS in 2001 to reduce the house of operation from 28 to 12. Once again, the town enlisted its local Congressman and the hours remained intact. Mr. Hayes notes that the operation was profitable then as it remained to the present.

When I arrived at the office late Saturday morning, there were 11 residents spending time at the post office. (To be fair, this wasn't typical; they knew I was coming. However it's not uncommon to see five residents at the post office at that time on a given week.) I took the opportunity to ask the fine folks a few questions. For instance, I noticed there were only two cars in front of the CPO. Of the 11 folks at the office, only one regularly drove; the rest walked.

I asked that question because the answer makes an important point: I'd imagine one might say that the residents of this town are merely complainers, that the nearby Rexford post office, a 1.1-mile drive, is an easy substitute for those who use the Alplaus CPO. But I believe the operative word is drive. Kathleen Schnitzer was one of the residents at the CPO that morning: "It's a nice walking town. You [always] see your friends, and sometimes it's the only reason people leave their house every day." Jessica Evans added: "It's the routine of village life."

Sometimes the routine in Alplaus includes bringing home-baked cookies to the post office for everyone. And it's not just the people who enjoy visiting the PO: there are dog biscuits as well. (There's even a special stash for Norm's Pomeranian, Peter.)

While the main road through Alplaus is conducive to walking, the Rexford post office is best visited by car. As I was taking photos across the road, six cars pulled into the parking lot. The 40-plus-mph drag (shown, along with a photo of the post office itself, below) isn't safe for pedestrians, and certainly not for the more elderly residents of Alplaus, some of whom don't drive.

One 24-year Alplaus resident thinks the result of the postal closure could extend beyond mere inconvenience: Stephanie Wolos stated that "people choose to live here partially due to the post office. I think it could affect real estate values." For the members who use the post office on a daily basis, she added, "It's unbelievably sad for us."

If you've never seen a Postmaster greet someone by name by the sounds of their entering the building, it's always an impressive sight. Like small-town Postmasters everywhere, Alplaus's 'Contract Postmaster' Kathy Boyle is vivacious, knowledgeable, energetic, and knows (knew?) her customers. Beginning as a temp in 1990, she held the contract and officially operated the CPO since Nov. 2001.

By and large Kathy interacts with the adults in the community, but she is familiar the goings on with residents of all ages – even what's happening at the nearby high school: "The only time I see the young kids come in is when the interim reports [from school] come in." Usually the parents will call Kathy up and tell her to hold the mail until they arrive.

That is one reason why many Alplaus residents opt against the available free delivery: security. Stephanie Wolos said that she happily pays $42 a year for the security of a PO Box with Kathy, "and I would be willing to pay more than that." While the community is close-knit and I didn't get the impression that there was any crime of which to speak, the PO Box keeps the cats out of the bag, as it were. And remember, you don't meet your friends if you walk out to just your own mailbox.

Some mailboxes along the main road in Alplaus:

A couple of residents noted that they felt safer knowing that Kathy is always on duty and monitoring the town – passively or otherwise. For example, if a resident doesn't pick up his/her mail for a few days, Kathy might just call directly to see if everything is alright: "If I don't see Norm we find out where Norm is." And a sigh of relief might sound like this: "I was just about to peek in your garage window and see if you were home!"

That is an echo of a story I've heard at small locations all over the country, and you can't get this level of service or community involvement at a larger office! It's just another of many services, official and informal, that are best provided by a postal operation at the heart of the community it serves.

Kathy also special-orders stamps for customers who request them—orders of late included romance-themed stamps for wedding invitations, Owney the Postal Dog stamps for local canine lovers. One resident noted that not everyone wants Liberty Bells! (This is one disadvantage to a VPO, which can only sell exactly one type of stamp.)

Framed articles along the wall of the CPO:

An interesting incident occurred in early November when a man identified as a local APWU executive walked into the Alplaus CPO and started taking photographs. When asked about his intentions, a resident recalls: He "claimed he would help us; that he was 'on our side'; and that it was not financially sound for USPS to have the local carriers take over delivery from folks who have boxes here." Furthermore, he specifically stated that "the union did not ask to have this post office closed." Rather, the claim is that USPS willingly proposed the aforementioned provision in the APWU contract, and the union merely accepted it. This claim could be contradicted by some APWU documents on CPUs. An August 2011 document titled Contract Postal Units (CPUs); Returning Work to the APWU declares, "The union is attempting to identify Contract Postal Units (CPUs) that perform work that should be returned to our members." A 2009 article titled Fighting Contract Postal Units; Protecting Retail Jobs speaks for itself.

When a Post Office is being studied for discontinuance, personnel must photograph the facility and its surroundings as part of the proceedings. It is probable that the supposed APWU defender's photographs of the office provided what was necessary to proceed with the closure of the office.

Alplaus is presently attempting to defend its post office for the third time. The town, with the help of a local lawyer, has filed an appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission to attempt to remand the decision to close the office back to USPS. (You can see the docket, A2012-88 in full on the PRC site.) The Postal Service denies that the PRC has any jurisdiction over contract operations, but there is a precedent the town is counting on: the PRC case involving the CPO of Knob Fork, West Virginia. In this 1984 decision, the PRC determined that while the Postal Service sought to dismiss the town's right to appeal based on a technical determination between Postmaster-operated and contract-operated post offices, "In ordinary usage, 'post office' is a retail facility where patrons may purchase postal services, and dispatch and possibly receive mail [source; pg. 7-8]." What they went on to declare was that regardless of who operates it, if it looks like a postal duck and it quacks like a postal duck, then the PRC can issue a decision on the case. (Here is a link to the decision re: Knob Fork, WV.)

At least two other CPO closure decisions were remanded by the PRC after the Knob Fork precedent: Foraker, Indiana in 1984, and Ranchita, California in 1985.

It is unclear how the revised decision to suspend the operation, as opposed to outright discontinue it, will affect the proceedings. Additionally, even if Alplaus were to win its case with the PRC, the Postal Service could decide to close the operation anyway.

A few new mailboxes have sprung up on Alplaus's main road, and other residents are filing to have their mail delivered to PO Boxes in Rexford. However, most residents I spoke with expressed that they would gladly take the opportunity take a PO Box back at Alplaus as soon as it might reopen. The town would consider opening a VPO ("It's better than nothing."), but astute residents in this town are aware that many of their postal desires could not be met at such a location. One example is the aforementioned ordering of specially requested stamps that Kathy provides. Another was told to me by Jessica Evans, regarding package shipping: "We ask [Kathy] what's the cheapest way to get it there and how long it will take, and she helps us. We have a conversation before I mail a package, and it makes me feel secure." By contrast, all Village "Post Offices" can do is give you a Flat-Rate box and take it back in.

I inquired as to whether the residents had Internet access; and if so, did they still mail bills at the post office? Pat Beaver responded: "Most have Internet, but you'd rather come here anyway." Is that right? "Absolutely. There's nothing personal on the Internet."

The Glenville Fire District owns the building which housed the Alplaus CPO, and the site will remain as it stands for the time being. Allow me to present some of the building's other gems: a classic safe that you'd need a truck to haul away despite the fact that it's got wheels; mural panels painted by local artists in the '90s that beautifully represent the buildings in the town; and a wall of photographs and newspaper articles detailing events from town history.

I think Mr. Hayes says it best: "My family established residency in Alplaus exactly in 1911, 100 years ago. Closure of the Alplaus PO would be losing part of the family."

At this point, only one question remains: Postally speaking, will there be an encore for Alplaus?