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Small, cherished, long lived post office up for closing

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image After more than 100 years of continuous service, the small, beloved facility is threatened with closure as the postal service contracts under a heavy financial burden. Melody Jameson Photo

Historic Balm post office is targeted for closure.

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – Historic, functional and community heartbeat though it may be, the post office here again is targeted for closure.

As part of a multi-faceted cost cutting consolidation being implemented over a protracted period by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the Balm facility that dates back more than 100 years is among several in Central Florida recommended for closure consideration, according to undated information being distributed by USPS operations in Tampa.

Local area representatives of the federal agency have scheduled a public meeting at the post office in Balm on Wednesday, April 13. Closing according to the USPS prescribed schedule could transpire in about four months.

However, residents in the secluded community, many of them engaged in rurally-rooted businesses dependent on postal services, are not taking the threat lying down. They are protesting in writing and suggesting consultation with elected officials at the federal level.

In a five-page informational package placed in post office boxes over the weekend, Leroy Middleton, post office operations manager in Tampa, cited several reasons for the possible closure — some of them deceptive — and suggested several alternatives to post office services — some of them impossible in the rural environment.

Middleton’s package also contained a two-page survey seeking resident/postal patron responses to five questions related and unrelated to post office usage. The survey asks for such information as the types of postal and non-postal services accessed by residents at their post office, whether residents drive past other post offices or use businesses in the community and where they meet shopping, banking, employment or social needs. The survey also asks for ratings on rural route carrier services.

The timeframe for completion of the form extends to April 13.

In his cover letter, Middleton stated the Balm P.O. “is being studied for possible closing or consolidation” because the “Office is currently vacant,” because there is another P.O. “within 5 miles of the Balm office that can easily accommodate the retail and box section,” and because “there currently is no growth in the Balm area” as shown by the 2010 census.

Marcella O’Steen, president of the Balm Civic Association and one of several residents who spoke with The Observer about the matter, immediately responded with a letter to USPS on behalf of the association membership.

O’Steen challenged Middleton’s statement that the office is vacant, pointing out the Balm P.O. is and consistently has been open for retail postal operations during routine business hours five days per week, with a postmaster on duty. The physical post office site is not vacant nor is the postmaster position unfilled, making either interpretation of Middleton’s statement invalid, she asserted to The Observer.

She also questioned such heavy reliance on the 2010 census count of Balm’s population and pointed out that even if it approaches accuracy, it does not forecast future population growth.

What’s more, the community leader took issue with a survey question that touches on a particularly sore point in the community: use of the public bulletin board. Such a feature in the post office was highly valued and heavily used by the community until it was eliminated by edict from USPS, she said. “And now we’re asked about it?” she queried in disbelief.

In addition, O’Steen’s letter emphasized that the post office is the one and only federal facility in the community “and we want to keep it.” The association, she noted, “strongly opposes” any move to close something that is at the core of community life.

In his communication, Middleton also stated “You can eliminate almost all trips to the Post Office, because doing business with the Postal Service is as close as your mailbox.” He goes on to suggest that such mailing activities as sending packages or purchasing stamps or designating express mail, for example, can be handled through a resident’s roadside box, provided proper forms, sufficient information and appropriate monies accompany the package or request for the carrier to pick up. Such transactions usually can be completed by the next delivery day, the operations manager wrote.

In addition, Middleton said, transactions like money order purchases can be managed “by meeting the carrier at the mailbox, completing an application and paying the carrier (in cash)...”

Middleton’s alternatives, however, did not strike Gerald Davis as feasible. Davis, descendant of one of the community’s founding families and a lifelong business owner there whose commercial operations rely on post office services, pointed to such factors as roadside boxes located some distance from rural homes built on acreages and often out of sight of the dwellings. Then, there’s the matter of weather conditions impacting anything outside the boxes, including property owners waiting for carriers, and the periodic rash of vandalism focused on destroying rural route boxes and the constant danger of silent theft from the boxes. “Conducting my business through a rural carrier is not reasonable,” he asserted.

The cash business going through the little post office may not precisely match the costs of maintaining it, “but they come close,” Davis estimated, adding there’s much more activity in the post office today, compared with 10 years ago. There’s also the convenience factor, he said. “Time is valuable; if I have to stand in line, I get aggravated.” And, as for driving to the next closest post office in Wimauma, whatever the distance, the true trip is double that mileage, eating up both time and fuel, he added.

Davis also noted that at least two earlier attempts in the last 15 years have threatened the Balm P.O. Each time the community raised vigorous objections, firmly based on the facility’s functional, historic and social values. Davis added he foresees residents now contacting both Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, officials elected to represent the interests of the community, about the proposed post office closing.

The Balm post office, he concluded, “is the center of the community. It’s the identity of Balm.”

Ronald Davis, a cousin, echoed that sentiment this week, as he lingered at the postal window, visiting with Postmaster Diane Felter. He recalled receiving mail from the late Grady Sweat and now-retired Postmaster Elizabeth “Pooka” Sweat when the postal station was located in the general store operated by the Sweats. “I must have been about nine or 10,” he added, “and that was 65 years ago.”

The little post office, established in 1905 as Balm was becoming a cattle, crop, logging and turpentine center, for more than 10 decades has been the community’s heartbeat, the hub on the community grapevine where residents daily exchanged news while conducting postal business. It also has been the site of community social gatherings, fueled with freshly prepared foods from country kitchens, as an event in its history was celebrated and succeeding generations were introduced to it as their settlement centerpiece.

For its part, USPS has stated that it now must “adjust its entire infrastructure at every level” as it tries to adapt to America’s changing mailing habits. As internet communications have boomed, the nation’s mail volume has declined by 43.1 billion pieces in the last five years and most of that decline has been in first class mail, said Gary Sawtelle, USPS spokesman in Tampa.

This loss of revenue, coupled with a “unique burden of prefunding retiree health benefits,” is significant for an agency supported not by taxes but by its postage, products and services sales, Sawtelle said. The situation is creating enormous financial pressures on the postal service, he added.

Locally, USPS recently implemented a consolidation that made the Sun City Center post office a hub for the region, passing all mail to and from other postal units through it.

Felter, the current postmaster in Balm, emphasized she could not take any public position on the proposed closing but acknowledged that many small and in-home business enterprises depend on accessible postal service, that the growing Hispanic population also heavily utilizes the post office and that customers come from other areas to use the little facility. Customers, she said, “ call it Hillsborough County’s best kept secret.”

The public meeting at the post office is set for 10:30 a.m., April 13.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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