As far as backbones of rural Maine go, the local post office ranks somewhere just behind the country store. But while country stores are hanging tough against the big-box stores that are increasingly found just a little farther down the road, small rural post offices are in real trouble.

That’s despite a short reprieve granted two years ago by the U.S. Postal Service, which approved a plan to reduce hours at 13,000 of the smallest post offices — including 34 in central Maine — instead of closing them altogether.

Many of those post offices already have reduced their hours. North Monmouth and Troy held community meetings recently to determine the best times to be open for business. Several communities, including China Village, East Winthrop and New Sharon, will hold meetings in the coming weeks.

But that is unlikely to be the final word on the matter.

The USPS will review the numbers from each of the affected post offices every year to determine if further cuts are necessary. For most of the offices, the financial outlook is not pretty.

Nationwide, customer retail visits to post offices dropped 27 percent from 2005 to 2011, from 1.28 billion to 930 million. The average post office costs $114,000 a year to operate, according to the USPS, and the bottom 4,500 in the country earn an average of $15,000 annually. In all, 88 percent of rural post offices were losing money as of 2012.

Cutting back the hours at 13,000 locations is expected to save $500 million a year, but that doesn’t come close to covering the multibillion-dollar losses the USPS suffers each year.

To do that, much more comprehensive reform is necessary. But, like most things, the proposal has stalled in Congress.

A bill that would eliminate Saturday mail delivery and reform the way the USPS accounts for its retirement benefits, saving billions, has not been taken up by either the House or the Senate, despite its apparent bipartisan support.

That kind of reform, coupled with at least a stop in the loss of post office visits, appear to be the only way to avoid further cuts and closures at rural post offices. And right now, neither looks likely.

At least we’ll still have country stores.


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