In tiny Gilman, members of Congress plead for a post office

BOZRAH–The nation is at war. Markets are crashing, and nearly 20 percent of the would-be workforce is either jobless or underemployed. But the story of this summer’s congressional recess? Saving the local post office branch.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District, stood Tuesday afternoon outside the tiny Gilman Post Office, one of two postal branches in this eastern Connecticut town, population 2,537.

If the U.S. Postal Service has its way, the tidy white clapboard building where about 80 patrons pick up their mail will close, a decidedly modest contribution towards offsetting a projected annual loss of more than $8 billion.

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Joe Courtney (c), Richard Blumenthal in Gilman.

Gilman is one of 15 post offices in Connecticut and about 3,700 nationwide placed on a closure list last month by a postal service that was sternly told by Congress in the mid-1980s to act like a business.

And this year, that means ruthlessly shedding so-called under-performing outlets, much like giant retailers such as Target, Lowe’s and even the seemingly ever-expanding Wal-Mart and Starbucks.

“We are not asking for any kind of federal bailout of tax money,” said Greg Frey, a spokesman for the service. “We are just asking for the ability to conduct business in the most efficient ways.”

Lately, business has been bad. The postal service recorded a loss of $5.7 billion over the first three quarters of the fiscal year, up from $5.4 billion a year ago, as consumers shift to email and electronic banking.

“That has huge implications for what’s called single-piece, first-class mail,” Frey said. “It has overwhelmingly been connected with receiving and paying bills.”

The USPS gets no federal subsidy, but it is hardly free of federal oversight, as the delivery of the mail and access to postal services still are seen as a public enterprise, even in the face of private-sector competitors like FedEx and UPS.

“This post office in this community is a quintessentially American institution,” Blumenthal said, standing in a village that has had its own post office since 1834. The village then was known as Bozrahville; it later was renamed for a family of industrialists that still runs businesses in town.

Another distinction of the U.S. Postal Service from its competitors is that the identity of small boroughs and villages like Gilman often are synonymous with a post office and accompanying zip code, 06336 in the case of Gilman.

That is not a burden ever faced by FedEx.

The village sits on a sweeping bend of the Yantic River on Gilman Road, where the post office stands next to Gilman Gear, a maker of sports gear, and across the street from The Gilman Brothers Company, a manufacturer of foam board.

Up the hill from the Gilman Brothers is Bozrah Light & Power, the electric company the Gilman family founded to keep one of their mills running after the Yantic went dry one year.

Gilman is one of three post offices on the closure list that has drawn the attention of Blumenthal, who is trying to save a branch in the Blue Hills section of Hartford and the Barnum branch in Bridgeport.

Courtney said the money saved from the proposed closures is relatively insignificant, compared to another fiscal liability shared by public and private entities: pension and retiree health costs.

The U.S. Postal Service was placed a under a strict mandate by Congress in 2006  to pre-fund its retiree health care by contributing $5.5 billion annually–the service has totally revenues of $65 billion–to a trust fund held by the federal government.

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Blumenthal, Courtney and Neil Gilman.

“It’s not reasonable to have that heavy burden,” Frey said.

In fact, the postal service recently announced it will not make the payment that is due in September.

Courtney and Blumenthal said they agree that burden should be reduced, and Courtney wonders if the branch closings are part of a strategy to engage members of Congress in that effort.

He and Courtney were joined Tuesday by members of the Gilman family: Evan Gilman, the president of Gilman Brothers; his cousin, Neil Gilman, the president of Gilman Gear; and another cousin, Jonathan Gilman, who is associated with the Gilman Corporation, a maker of buoys and other navigational aids.

The Gilmans say the post office is a boon to their companies, giving them an identify, a zip code and an easy portal to shipping packages.

Courtney said maintaining the post office, where Neil Gilman’s grandfather, father and mother were postmaster, is more than indulging in nostalgia for a disappearing small-town institution.

The service is considered a tool of economic development, a service to a cluster of manufacturers that employ more than 200 people, he said.

“It’s something we really have to make sure the postal service is aware of, that there is an economic multiplier effect in terms of the volume of mail,” Courtney said.

“This issue really involves jobs and economic growth, because this post office and its 80 post office boxes and mail traffic, its packages, its stamps, is vital to small business that want to grow,” Blumenthal said.

The Gilmans are the landlord, as well a customer of the post office. As a sweetener to the postal service, it is offering to waive the monthly rent of $800 and, perhaps, guarantee an increase in business.

Even as the Gilmans decry the potential loss of a supposedly invaluable post office, they concede they, too, have been successfully courted by Federal Express and UPS for a significant portion of their shipping business.

They are open to using the U.S. Postal Service for more of their shipping — if the service can match the prices of the two private competitors. They noted that FedEx and UPS regularly send sales representatives to solicit business and inquire about their needs.

It is an exercise in outreach they have not seen from the U.S. Postal Service, despite its presence next to one Gilman company and across from the other.

Courtney acknowledged that advocating for the threatened post offices is an exercise in retail politics, always important for a member of Congress. But he and Blumenthal also said it is appropriate for Congress to push back on policies that seem self-defeating by an important public institution.

Closing so many branches seems like a surrender in many markets, Courtney said.

At postal headquarters in Washington, Frey understands the congressional backlash.

“Of course, that’s that job of elected officials, to represent constituents,” Frey said. “But you can’t make every single one of them happy. You have to look for the greater good here.”

And the greater good for the U.S. Postal Service, Frey said, must involve shedding costs.