WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bending to strong public opposition, the nearly bankrupt U.S. Postal Service on Wednesday backed off a plan to close thousands of rural post offices after May 15 and proposed keeping them open, but with shorter operating hours.
The move to halt the shuttering of 3,700 low-revenue post offices followed months of dissent from rural states and their lawmakers, who said the cost-cutting would hurt their communities the most.
In Freistatt, where the community organized and sent letters with 222 questions for the Postal Service to answer, the announcement was received as welcome news.
"We need this little post office," said past Freistatt mayor Elmer Conway. "They don't stop and realize how much traffic we get off the highway, from trucks dropping off their logs. Even if they cut it to four hours, it's a great thing if they let us keep it."
According to a letter received yesterday from the Postal Service, a new strategy for reviewing post offices would not be completed until September 2014.
While no post office would be closed, more than 13,000 rural mail facilities could see reduced operations of between two hours and six hours a day, but only after a review process that is expected to take several months. An additional 4,000 rural post offices would keep their full-time hours.
Among the local post offices on the list for an hours review are those in Freistatt and Stotts City, which were on the list for possible closing, and those in Verona, Exeter and Seligman.
The agency also will announce new changes next week involving its proposal to close up to 252 mail processing centers.
"At the end of the day, we will not close rural post offices until we receive community input," said MeganBrennan, the Postal Service's chief operating officer.
Most of the 3,700 post offices that had been under review for possible closing had been in rural areas with low volumes of business, with most having only two hours of business a day even though they are open longer. Currently the post office operates more than 31,000 retail outlets.
The agency said its new plan will save more, mostly by weeding out full-time postmasters who don't have labor contract protections and replacing them with part-time workers. It plans to discuss possible buyouts with 13,000 postmasters who are now eligible for retirement. More than 80 percent of postal costs in rural areas are labor-related.
The Postal Service has been grappling with losses as first-class mail volume declines and more people switch to the Internet to communicate and pay bills. The agency has forecast a record $14.1 billion loss by the end of this year; without changes, it said, annual losses will exceed $21 billion by 2016.
Freistatt Clerk Deborah Schoen, who helped to organize the letter writing campaign to save the post office in the town of around 180 people, said village residents are not going to forget the questions they posed to the Postal Service.
"They are obligated by law to answer the questions," Schoen said. "We're going to save them for 2014 if we have to. They had better be ready to answer them."