Tampa residents hear options for their postal future

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If the energy permeating Wednesday’s town meeting is any indication, the citizens of Tampa won’t let an irresponsible lessor or a bureaucratic postal system keep them from having a full-time post office in their community again.

About 100 citizens turned out last week to listen and speak-sometimes impatiently-to four regional postal services representatives about what it will take to get a new post office in town now that their old one has been suspended indefinitely because of an infestation of toxic black mold in the building.

Service in the old building ended officially at end of the business day Friday. A temporary collection box unit has been erected outdoors and will serve as the place where Tampa residents and businesses can pick up and deposit mail.

Current staff will be transferred to other operations until the matter is settled.

Residents will retain their current mailing addresses while a long-term solution is found, said Herb Swan, a post master from Norfolk, Neb., who is postal service’s coordinator for suspensions for the region.

“That’s going to be our arrangement for as long as it takes,” Swan said. “Hopefully, that will inconvenience you as little as possible. But it won’t be as convenient as it was.”

Those in attendance were concerned that the process of securing a new post office not take very long.

But one message came through clearly: the U.S. Postal Service will not be of much practical help.

“There’s just no capital funding right now to build a new post office, especially for small communities,” Swan said.

Unless an unknown benefactor steps forward, it will be up to the citizens of Tampa to take the lead and make the primary financial investment either to build a new facility or “postalize” an existing one to meet current building standards, Swan said.

In either case, the project will not be inexpensive.

“Most people think you can put up a modular building for $10,000 to $15,000 and call that a post office,” Swan said. “I’ve done a lot of community meetings-that just doesn’t happen.

“We have to go by guidelines,” he added. “I know this is hard to believe, but the low estimates I can give you to postalize a building is in the range of $40,000 to $60,000-and that’s even if the structure is already there.”

Swan said the postal service will lease a “suitable alternate quarters” once it is erected and approved, but the owner of the building shouldn’t expect an attractive return on the investment.

“If somebody’s looking to build a new post office here and make some money off it, I’m not going to lie to you-it’s not going to happen,” Swan said.

Tampa’s problems began when the former post office building was sold to a Jonathan Smith, who purchased “30 to 40” small-town post office buildings as a tax write-off and then ignored maintenance needs, according to Theresa Cuellar, who has been involved in similar situations in other small towns in her role with the postal service.

“You’re not the only town that has this problem,” Cuellar said. “The lessor is causing this whole mess.”

In Tampa’s case, the black mold began growing because of a badly leaking roof. Joan Jones, Tampa’s post master, and Mayor Jim Clemmer both said they have made repeated requests that Smith fix the roof, but to no avail.

“The only time Jonathan Smith answers the phone is when his Caller ID isn’t working and he doesn’t recognize the phone number,” Clemmer said.

One Tampa resident asked if the present building could be reopened if the roof was fixed.

Cuellar said the problem is that the former post office shared space under the same roof with three other storefronts and that the whole roof structure would have to be replaced.

‘I’m not going to take on that cost because I can’t,” she said. “I’m not going to spend that kind of money to fix that building when we’re only using a part of it.”

Swan said that even if the roof could be fixed, all the interior walls would have to be removed and sanitized to get rid of the mold-adding significantly to the cost.

Asked if the postal service could sue Smith for his negligence, Swan responded, “The postal service gets a bad enough image without suing anybody. We just don’t have much recourse on landlords that don’t fix up their buildings.”

Several residents made the case that the local post office had been generating significant revenue for a town its size. Records indicated that the presence of three thriving businesses-Tampa State Bank, Agri Producers Inc., and Cardie Oil-help push revenue to around $45,000 a year.

But Swan said that fact will not necessarily generate much attention from postal officials.

“Is this post office making money?” Swan asked rhetorically. “No, it’s not. Does the one down the road make money? No. We have very few post offices that are profitable. The other, larger post offices subsidize the smaller ones.”

Swan said Tampa isn’t facing an impending deadline to come up with a plan, and that the temporary arrangement with the outdoor collection box can likely be extended “for as long as it takes.”

Contacted Monday, Mayor Clemmer said he isn’t sure what the community’s next step will be, but he expects a plan will come together.

“We’ve lost our store, we’ve lost our school and if we lose the post office, it could be a matter of time before the bank decides to leave, too,” he said.

He said the community has a track record for addressing its problems creatively and intentionally.

“We’re trying to stay alive,” he said.

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