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Postal authorities get earfuls from Balm residents

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image Some 60 Balm area residents, committed to keeping their small but historic post office open, turned out for a community meeting. Melody Jameson Photo


BALM – Last week, a crowd of concerned post office patrons here personally delivered a strong message of resistance to postal managers.

With unmistakable clarity and for a number of reasons, they pushed back vigorously against a U.S. Postal Service move to close or consolidate their historic little post office in order to cut costs.

This week, the considered reply was “We got the message.”

But, just how heavily it weighs in evaluation of Balm’s post office for closure remains to be seen. The outcome currently is predicted for July.

And what may evolve then could be a compromise between complete closure and full-time functioning.

For the third time in recent memory, USPS opened the door a few weeks ago to eliminating the postal station that has been at the center of the community’s life for more than a century. It came in a five-page package from Leroy Middleton, a district manager of post office operations in Tampa, placed in post office boxes.

Middleton suggested that box patrons could use the Wimauma station instead by driving a mere five more miles and that postal business from mailing packages to special services could be conducted at roadside boxes with carrier help.

He also sought to point out the “Office is currently vacant” and that “there currently is no growth in the Balm area” according to the 2010 census.

Balm residents, however, were having none of it. About 60 of them, including 92-year-old retired postmaster Elizabeth “Pooka” Sweat, showed up Wednesday morning (April 13) armed with calculations, comments and questions for a meeting with Middleton and USPS Spokesman Gary Sawtelle outside the post office building the former postmaster owns.

Danny Dixon, who lives on McGrady Road within biking distance of the Balm post office, asserted that, contrary to USPS statements, doing business at the Wimauma post office would require at least a 7.2-mile trip one way from his home.

Regardless of the route taken, he said, it’s a 14.4 or 18.4-mile round trip drive to the Wimauma station as gasoline bumps $4 per gallon.

A daily run to the Balm post office during a six-day week totals 19.2 miles for his family, Dixon added, while travel to the Wimauma station via the shortest route on the same basis comes to 86.4 miles.

Taking the same figures to a logical annual conclusion, forcing Balm residents to use the Wimauma post office conservatively obligates them to travel an additional 3,494 miles each year, Dixon said. The resulting increase in costs to each resident in such circumstances is 450 percent, he noted emphatically.

In the same vein, Angie Burch mentioned the large number of migrant workers living in the community and supplying the workforce for surrounding agricultural operations who routinely obtain money orders at the Balm post office. “How are they going to walk to Wimauma,” she asked rhetorically, how are they going to use the roadside boxes?”

Like many business operators in the Balm area who use the post office on a daily basis, Gerald Davis pointed out he could not conduct his postal business through a carrier. It’s not only a convenience issue, it’s a security issue, Davis said, adding “I’m not going to have eight or nine checks totaling $100,000 or more in my roadside mail box.”

Another Balm businessman, Reggie Joyner, estimated he is one of the top five postal service users in the community, operating five different corporations out of his local office. He likened the proposed change in post office services to a forthcoming “train wreck.”

Zeroing in on the no-Balm-growth argument, Glen Fiske, vice president of the Balm Civic Association, asked Middleton and Sawtelle which post office in the system recently received a top performance award. The answer, as anticipated, was “the Balm Post Office.”

And while they were at it, residents also registered their lingering complaints about being forced into a Wimauma rural delivery route and therefore saddled with a Wimauma zip code. “We don’t live in Wimauma, we live in Balm!” one asserted as loud applause erupted. Another pointed out that mail frequently is lost because of the confusion caused by a Wimauma zip code attached to a Balm physical address. Another spoke of the constant hassles caused Balm citizens burdened with trying to clarify addresses on official ID cards.  It adds up to a strong argument for a Balm post office box, they indicated.

For their part, Middleton and Sawtelle responded to several of the issues on the spot. Middleton explained that from the postal service’s perspective the postmaster position at Balm is empty because there is no appointed Balm Postmaster per se at this time; Postmaster Diane Felter is serving in that capacity in Balm, but actually was assigned to another station.

The operations manager also stated that post office closings are not necessarily based on the volume of their retail business. Many, even a majority, do not make money and if their financial conditions were the only criteria, many would have been closed, he added.

And Sawtelle, taking on the community complaint about its former bulletin board in the post office, said he did not believe the communications tool was eliminated by any USPS order.

Residents also made several suggestions aimed at compromise, if that would save their post office. They generally agreed that fewer open hours or reduced days of mail delivery might be tolerated, for example. And, they suggested another meeting with postal authorities during evening hours when more residents could participate.

This week, Sawtelle said that while another community meeting with USPS personnel in the foreseeable future is not likely as evaluation of the facility continues, the suggestions have not fallen on deaf ears. “We got the message,” he said, “they did a good job of conveying their concerns to us.”

The evaluation process takes place in about 12 steps, he added, with a public meeting usually the third. Resident comment will be considered at upcoming internal USPS sessions as will such factors as the number of transactions over the P.O. counter which could be used to calculate clerk hours required, the spokesman said. Other alternatives such as clustered lock boxes somewhere in Balm also could be considered, he added. Plus, he said problems associated with the conflicting zip code and physical properties should be resolved.

Faced with radically reduced mailing volume, high internet use for communications and forced pre-funding of USPS retiree benefits, the postal service is bleeding money, Sawtelle noted, “but service can trump budget.” And, “we’re not normally in the business of closing post offices,” he added, it’s “new territory.”

That’s a sentiment some Balm residents hope will prevail. While some counseled neighbors to contact U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (202-225-1252 Washington office; 863-644-7107 Lakeland office) whose district includes Balm, others declared the threatened closure action is “directly against the will of the people.”

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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