Tampa’s efforts to reopen its post office haven’t delivered the goods

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Three years after losing their post office, residents of Tampa are trying to bring one back to the small community in northern Marion County.

The local office was “temporarily suspended” May 2, 2003, because of an outbreak of black mold in the aging building.

“When they found the mold, they closed the office and told us there was no other suitable building in our community to be used for a post office,” said Tom Duggan, a member of the Tampa Community Association.

“We were told we could build another facility, but they wouldn’t guarantee us they would rent it. They gave us very little encouragement.”

Dan Taylor, USPS area operations manager in Salina, said his the postal service has been up front with the community from Day 1.

“We have afforded extra time for the community to try to provide and present their ideas over that time, but quite frankly there have been none,” Taylor said.

He said the situation hasn’t changed much since an informational meeting in April 2003.

“The postal service didn’t have the funds then and doesn’t have the funds now to support or build a facility in the community of Tampa,” he added. “My guess is we’re probably near the very end of the proposal to move forward once all the replies are taken care of.”

Inattentive owner

Frustration still percolates in Tampa. Many residents blame the closure of the post office on the apathy of Jonathon Smith, who lives in Chicago and works with Nationwide Real Estate.

Smith purchased the building as a tax-motivated investment, according to residents.

“He didn’t maintain the facility and the roof leaked, allowing the mold to grow,” Duggan said.

Once the building was deemed unsuitable to house the post office, USPS slapped a “temporarily suspended” label on it.

In the three years since, residents have been picking up their mail in outside boxes and catching the rural mail carrier-who doubles as their mail provider-in order to mail packages or even buy postage stamps.

During the first two years of the arrangement, residents took the situation in stride.

“Basically, they told us they’d put up boxes temporarily and not to complain because that would really get the post office upset,” said Gary Spohn of rural Tampa. “So no one said anything for the first two years, but then (USPS) said, ‘Well, no one is complaining, so I guess it’s all right.'”

Tampa is not alone

Tampa residents are frustrated but their situation is not unique. A growing number of postal facilities in Kansas and across the country have been “suspended.”

“The Postal Service uses this tactic so they don’t have (to close them) legally,” said Betty Eickler, chair for the Committee to Prevent Post Office Closing/Consolidation. “I would say there are still approximately 500 offices across the country that are temporarily closed.”

In fact, 340 post offices nationwide have been designated “temporarily suspended” since 2002.

In Kansas, 21 such closures have taken place since 1996. Eight of those offices eventually were closed permanently.

According to Eickler, the USPS isn’t always playing by the rules.

“Ninety days after the Postal Service tells a community their office is temporarily suspended, they are supposed to give them an official closing date,” Eickler said. “But they’re just trying to avoid paperwork and, in most cases, they try to do it without the community even knowing that it happens and that it’s their right (to be notified).”

Eickler said the district manager for customer service and sales must determine a plan of action to restore service, secure suitable alternative quarters, take other necessary corrective action or initiate a discontinuance study within 90 days.

“That plan of action must be sent in writing to the vice president for delivery and retail not later than the 90th day,” Eickler said. “By doing an emergency suspension, they can walk in and close an office immediately.”

Out in the cold

All of which leaves the residents of Tampa out in the cold-sometimes literally.

“When it got icy, some of the elderly residents in town couldn’t get their mail because it was just too dangerous,” Spohn said. “Or if it’s raining, our carrier has to be out there separating mail with one hand while holding an umbrella with his other hand.”

Taylor said the USPS is willing to address those weather concerns.

“We’ve received approval to add a roof over the current cluster boxes and extend the pad out a little bit to help with the inclement weather concerns,” Taylor said.

“I know there is the appearance of the little guy and the big guy, but we feel we’ve provided regular and effective service through the use of the rural carrier.”

Reason for closure

Eickler said mold is the second most common reason given by the USPS for closing offices. The most common reason is eviction or retirement of the post master.

According to its own bylaws, the USPS has an obligation to provide rural residents the same services as their urban counterparts.

Section 101(b) of Title 39 of the U.S. Code states: “The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effectiveness and regular postal service to rural areas and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining. No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be ensured to residents of both urban and rural communities.”

No revenue problem

Dwindling revenue shouldn’t have been a determining factor in Tampa anyway, say residents.

“Tampa had one of the largest revenues for mailing of any of the communities in the area because of Tampa’s elevator, Cardie Oil and the (Tampa State) bank,” Spohn said. “We had a big mailing revenue.”

“Most of the other offices in our area had much less revenue,” Duggan agreed. “Tampa has businesses that generate a lot of mail.”

So much mail, in fact, that the temporary outdoor mail receptacle has been overwhelmed from time to time.

“Apparently the bank and elevator mailed all their statements on the same day,” said Mayor Jim Clemmer. “I tried to mail a couple of my own letters and I couldn’t even get them in the stupid box because it was so full.”

Since no other building in Tampa was deemed suitable to house the post office, residents offered another solution: to build a facility that would meet USPS standards.

“But they (the USPS) wouldn’t promise they’d rent it if we built it,” said Carole Spohn, president of the Tampa Community Association. “They told us to build it, but they wouldn’t decide until after it was done whether or not they would accept it.

“Plus, they expected the owner of the building to postalize the building, which means they were expected to furnish it with a counter, boxes-everything,” Duggan said. “You’re talking about probably doubling the cost of the building.”

Taylor said the USPS can’t rely on word of mouth to extend contract guarantees.

“The postal service can’t enter into just a hearsay agreement in regard to guaranteeing anybody that we could move into a facility someone might build locally,” he said. “The postal service just isn’t able to lock into a binding contract with anybody based on the many requirements we have to follow.”

Building plans thwarted

Clemmer said the USPS was paying $300 to rent the old facility but didn’t want to increase the amount for a new structure.

“They want a 1,500-square-foot building for $300 rent,” Clemmer said.

“At one point, we estimated we could build a 700- to 800-foot building for about $40,000, but we don’t know if that’s still true with today’s costs,” Duggan said. “In a town this size, if you build a building for $40,000 and (USPS) won’t use it, what else are you going to use if for?”

Duggan said even with the uncertainty, blueprints were drawn for a new building but the USPS never acknowledged them.

“That’s one thing that really upsets me,” he said. “We went in with a plan a year ago that was computerized and they had it three months before they said it wasn’t detailed enough.”

So the group hired an architect to modify the original plan. Those plans, along with about 20 letters pointing out the community’s need for a facility, were sent to Taylor and to Teresa Cuellar, USPS district representative in Omaha, Neb.

“Their response never mentioned one word about our plans,” Duggan said. “They’re just ignoring us.”

Added Clemmer: “And we have two local contractors who have volunteered to build a building in Tampa as an investment. They can build a facility much cheaper than any of us could just because of their knowledge and background in construction and carpentry.

“We have people willing to build our building,” Clemmer added. “And if our proposal isn’t what they want, just tell us what the sam hill they want and we’ll adjust our plans.”

But Taylor said his organization did see the plans and found them to be sub-par.

“Most of the plans-and that’s not to be rude or crude to anybody’s abilities-but many of them were handdrawn pictures or computer generated with no real true plans,” he said. “We provided to at least three people, the local specs and codes for the new facility and the ball got dropped numerous times.”

Loss of identity

For all involved, the permanent loss of the post office would mean the loss of their identity.

“Basically, after the school left, the post office was our central meeting point and it really meant something,” Gary Spohn said.

“The fact we’re being ignored is the frustrating part,” Duggan said. “If they’d just come out and say, ‘We’re sorry, but for economical reasons we just can’t open your post office.’ At least we’d know, but it’s just like we don’t exist.

“We’re trying to be legal and honest. We just want an answer.”

Added Carole Spohn: “We just want other small towns to understand what can happen. We understand these investors are buying up post offices and not maintaining them.”

Patience growing thin

Tampa residents don’t know if they will ever get their post office back, or even receive acknowledgement that their plans have been received. But they desperately want answers and want them now.

“The postal service gave Lance Armstrong $9 million to ride his bicycle across France,” Clemmer said. “If they have that kind of money, and they have to raise our stamp prices by two cents to do that, why can’t we have our post office back?”

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