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Mr. MERKLEY. Mr. President, I rise today to address an issue that goes to the very heart of our rural communities: our rural post offices. I am speaking while negotiations are going on regarding the Postal Service reform bill that has many dimensions to it, attempting to put the Postal Service on stable financial grounds. But I want to focus on this particular aspect: that today we must modify the bill that is before us so we do not end up destroying our rural post offices that are at the heart of the communities they serve.
It was a few months ago that I was in eastern Oregon and received a message that the Postmaster General had put on the list for closure 41 rural community post offices--and that was just in my State of Oregon. In the next couple days, I dropped by several of those rural community post offices. In two cases they were open. I talked to the postmaster, I talked to citizens who were nearby, and I quickly got feedback on the destruction that would happen in that rural community if we do not address this issue in this bill.
Specifically, there will be a huge impact on the small businesses that use the post offices to receive orders and to ship orders on a daily basis. Those businesses will not be able to function if they have to drive 30, 40, 50, 60 miles roundtrip each day to pick up orders and to ship products--a huge waste of time, often on dangerous, winding, narrow roads; a huge additional cost, a huge distraction from the work they do on their farms or on their ranches. In short, this will shut down a lot of small businesses or those small businesses will have to move. They will move to larger towns. When they move, the retail dollars move, and it will not be long before that small store at the heart of that town shuts down.
In addition, I heard from seniors who receive their medicines through the mail. In some cases, they are controlled medicines for which they have to sign. They have to be there in person. They cannot simply receive them through a mailbox, if you will. Certainly, often our seniors are not always in the shape where they can drive daily to see if a medicine they are waiting for has arrived--that they would have to go 40, 50, 60 miles roundtrip to check and see if their medicines came in. Those folks will start thinking: Well, maybe I can't live in this rural community anymore. Maybe I need to move to a larger town that has a post office.
Part of the irony of the bill we have before us is often on the Senate floor we are talking about spending government resources for economic development. Well, if you go to a small town and ask people what is the most essential component for the success of their small town, their small businesses, they are going to tell you the rural post office; that without that they are pretty much out of business. So how is it we spend so much time talking about jobs and economic development and small business as the factory of job creation, and yet we have a bill before us that basically cuts the heart out of the small town economy?
I originally come from a very small town, the small town of Myrtle Creek. When I was a small child--born there--the Dairy Queen at the heart of town was the place we occasionally went as a family. That Dairy Queen is still there, and I still often drive through Myrtle Creek just to go by and have a hamburger as I am going north and south through Oregon.
Now, Myrtle Creek does not happen to be on the list of the 41 towns where the post offices would be shut down.
But visit my hometown and one would get a real sense of the damage that would occur if the post office were shut down. So I bring a very kind of personal sense that this battle matters. I wanted to share some of the feedback I have had from a couple towns. I wish to start with the town of Tiller in Douglas County. Tiller is not that far away. Myrtle Creek is in Douglas County; Roseburg is in Douglas County where I started grade school; Tiller is in Douglas County.
This is the post office in Tiller. It is 16 miles from the next nearest post office. Imagine that a person lives 10 miles from Tiller and then they have to drive another 16 miles to get to the next nearest town. Now we are talking about 50 miles round trip. That is an hour or more out of their day, and that is a lot of cost in gas. That might be $10 a day in gas right there, and that is a huge factor for many of our families.
I am going to share with everyone some passages from a letter from Diana Farris, a former postmaster in Tiller. She writes:
Tiller is one such community where, in many ways, time stands still and new technology is beyond their grasp. In Tiller, cellular phone service is unavailable, DSL and cable internet service are unavailable, satellite service is overpriced with the majority of residents in the area unable to afford it and there is no Wi-Fi access.
Dial up internet is available (when the poorly maintained telephone system is operational) at top speeds of approximately 24 26k, so slow that many websites, including USPS, time out before you can access the needed information.
Diana Farris, former postmaster, then says:
The unemployment rate has risen to 13 percent in Douglas County, and the lowest gas price in Tiller in the last few months has been $3.95 per gallon. For communities like this, the local Post Office remains the only option.
Many folks in the Senate may think in terms of big cities they represent that have many options, that have FedEx, that have all forms of electronic communications. They have all kinds of alternatives. But those alternatives, as Diana points out, are not options they have in a small town. Indeed, one of my colleagues said: I do not understand why you are so concerned because FedEx can deliver the medicines.
If one has been to a small town, they would find out that FedEx uses the post office system to complete the last mile of their deliveries. So, no, FedEx does not provide an answer for our veterans, for our seniors, for others who need medicines or other products being delivered through the mail.
Because of that difficult drive from Tiller to the next post office, because of the time, because of the distance, the closing of the Tiller Post Office would have a devastating impact on the small businesses that rely on the U.S. Postal Service.
Here is a letter from Alexandra Petrowski, who owns a small business. It is called Singing Falls Mohair. She owns the business with her husband, lives in Tiller, and she writes:
We utilize the services of the U.S. Post Office extensively. I would estimate that between 3 and 5 packages go out from our home to destinations all over the world on a daily basis. We sell our products on EBay and the business is flourishing. Our growing market is worldwide using the U.S. mail system every day of the week excluding Sundays.
In the EBay marketplace, timely mailing is an integral part of good customer service. As it is, the Tiller post office is 7 miles from our mountain ranch. A closure of the Tiller Post Office would require an approximately 45 mile round trip journey that would severely impact our modest profit margin.
We have been engaged in this business for 30+ years. We are seniors and rely extensively on our cottage industry to sustain our ranch operation. Would closing Tiller's post office mean effectively an end to the home business?
Then she answers her own question.
The answer at this point in time is that it would seriously jeopardize our business.
So here there is a family living on a ranch quite a ways outside Tiller, but Tiller is the closest place. They would have to drive into Tiller, then drive this additional 16 miles to the next post office, would have to do this on a daily basis to ship products.
They are fortunate to have Internet and have been able to advertise and have the world see their products and advertise them through eBay, but they get customer ratings on eBay. If you have ever been on eBay, you will see that people who have these small businesses establish online reputations because they are judged by each of their customers. They are rated by each of their customers.
We feel pretty comfortable ordering from someone who, say, has shipped 500 orders and has a 5-star rating and not that comfortable ordering from someone who has a 3-star rating and customer after customer has said: The product does not come in a timely manner or it is not packaged well, it is not shipped well. So this model, small businesses completely depend on the U.S. Postal Service serving that small community.
Let me turn to Malheur County, a different part of the State, and the town of Juntura. I will get a picture of the Juntura Post Office before us. We will see it is quite a simple looking structure, a manufactured building, not very expensive to build, certainly not very expensive to have it open a couple hours a day. So we are talking about microscopic costs in the context of postal reform that have a monumental impact on the success of our small communities--low cost, high impact.
Is that not the type of deal we argue for every day: government efficiency, low cost, high impact. This little, simple modular building, a few wooden steps going up to the door, may not look like much, but it is a shipping hub and a communications hub that makes the economy work in Juntura, OR.
I have a report from a Juntura resident named Laura Williams. She went into a comprehensive analysis of the impact of this very modest building. She wrote up a 42-page report. It examines every aspect of how this very inexpensive investment--the returns it has for the community. I thought I would read to all of you a little bit from that report.
She writes that the residents of Juntura:
Will either have to drive to Drewsey, to the west, to mail packages, buy money orders and complete a variety of other transactions--or they'll have to drive east to Harper, 34 miles away, a route that winds through a river canyon dangerously choked with deer during the winter months.
That is the end of that first part of the passage. When I looked at her report, she actually compiled numbers of the number of collisions per week with deer on this road as one drives from Juntura to Drewsey. I was astounded by the high rate. It was a rate of several collisions a week.
I remember when I was a kid, a small child, and we would be driving the rural roads in Douglas County and my parents would say: We have to watch for deer. If you have a deer come through your windshield, you can be pretty much toast if you are traveling at any substantial speed. If you are on a motorcycle and you go around a curve and you hit a deer, the deer is going to do a lot of damage.
So it may not sound like something folks who come from cities would understand, but driving roundtrip--in this case to Harper, 34 miles away--70 miles roundtrip through a road that is dangerous, in dangerous weather conditions, dangerous because of deer and certainly an enormous waste of time and fuel, doesn't make any sense.
She continues, and this is an analysis of Laura Williams from Juntura:
In essence, Juntura is between a rock and a hard place.
She then analyzes that 25 percent of Juntura's post office users are seniors who would be particularly impacted by these changes, as they rely heavily on the Postal Service to receive medication and may have more difficulty driving long distances in hazardous conditions.
She has one word in bold on the front page which sums up her analysis of the impact of closing this humble post office, ``disastrous.'' It would be disastrous for seniors, for veterans, and for small businesses. It is disastrous for the sense of the community that uses this as a place to connect with each other.
Two weeks ago when we were on the State work period, I visited Fort Klamath, which is also on the list to be closed. When I came, they wanted to share their stories, and I want to share several of those with you now.
The first comment is from Jeanette and Bob Evans. Bob is a veteran, and he receives medication through the mail that often needs to be scanned and signed for. They would have to take a 30-mile trip to pick up the medication if Fort Klamath post office was closed. They will feel the impact in that manner, and then they might make that trip and find out the medicine hasn't arrived yet. So they may have to make multiple trips.
They have a rental business that must follow State law requiring many documents be sent via first-class U.S. mail in order to verify the date of notification. Again, closure of the Fort Klamath Post Office will force them to take more 30-mile trips to Chiloquin to process this mail correctly.
So there are a couple hundred families in this community. It is a beautiful area and has a lot of residences rented out in the summer. Those folks who rent need to have timely service or they are not going to come to town. This point was made. Once the summer renters arrive, which drives the economy of the town, those renters want to be able to mail their letters, and they want to be able to receive their packages.
So that post office--I don't have a picture of the Fort Klamath Post Office here, but closing that post office would take away not only from the business of renting out summer residences but from the number of folks who believe they want to go there and spend their vacation.
Heidi McLean is the proprietor of the Aspen Inn in Fort Klamath, which operates seasonally. Heidi uses the post office daily to send out information packages to everybody interested in staying with them during the season. Once they get word of somebody being interested, they send out the details. They have to be received on a timely basis or the customer will say they got information from somewhere else and that is where they are going to go for their summer vacation. Then Heidi will have lost that business.
Heidi said they could get by with fewer days or partial days, but they feel very strongly they need access to a local post office and that a 70-mile roundtrip to Chiloquin to access their mail would be a serious problem for their small business.
Currently, several of my colleagues have worked to put together a process in the managers' amendment. They have been working hard. I applaud them for taking a step forward from the basic bill. I appreciate the hard work Senator Carper from Delaware has been doing and the hard work Senator Lieberman from Connecticut has been doing. They have both indicated a willingness to continue working to try to make sure we do not destroy our rural communities by shutting down their post offices. So we are continuing that conversation.
We have a group of us who have an amendment now, including Senator McCaskill, who is the lead on it. Many other folks are involved, including Senators TESTER, BAUCUS, and LEAHY. I don't have the full list. I thank them all. They understand this basic notion of little money and the huge impact. It is a type of solution we should be driving through this Chamber.
Currently, the plan in the managers' amendment is a step forward but not quite far enough. I will explain. It says the post office will design a series of service standards, and they will design a procedure. Essentially, before they close a post office they will have to do an analysis of whether closing the post office meets the retail service standards they have laid out, and after they announce the decision there will be an opportunity for the decision to be appealed. That appeal will go to the PRC, Postal Review Commission. The PRC will evaluate whether they met their own standards, and they will evaluate whether the procedures were followed. If they were not, then the PRC can say to the post office that they must go back and look at this again.
It sounds like a system that has some routine to it. But why is that not sufficient to protect our rural post offices? Very simply, the post office management is trying to save money. If they set service standards, those standards will be set in a manner that allows many of our small towns to be shut down--many of our post offices to shut down. It is the same reason they put up a list of 41--let me put up Tiller again. Forty-one of these small town post offices already said--from their internal review, from their sense of responsibility, and from their service standards they want to shut down 41 of these.
After a lot of protests, we got a 6-month delay, and I am very thankful for that. The Postmaster General also said: Maybe not 41. For now, we will take 20 of them off the list. And he took one more off. So we are down to about 20 in Oregon. Others could be added back at any time.
The post office has already said they want to shut down 41 based on their understanding of their service responsibilities. So a process we put into statute that simply says: Will you be a little more clear about writing your service standards or your procedures is just window dressing.
So we need the Senate to say: Here are service standards for delivering
medical supplies to our seniors, veterans, and others. Here are standards for the communities that do not have all the electronic communications that big towns have. Here are standards for supporting the small businesses in these communities. We need to set those standards because it is we on the Senate
floor who have been elected to fight for the people of America. The post office is trying to balance their budget. That is why they said they think it is OK to shut down these 41.
The amendment that Senators MCCASKILL, TESTER, BAUCUS, LEAHY, and a number of others have put forward is completely compatible with the general vision of having an appeal process with the Postal Review Commission. But it gives the Postal Review Commission an actual standard by which to make a decision; otherwise, all the post office has to say is, yes, we considered the issue--and the word ``consider'' is right in the current amendment, the managers' amendment. It is not enough for the post office to say: Yes, we considered the fact that it does affect small businesses, such as the Mohair Company that I described. There has to be a standard of service that we in this body are comfortable with in defending the commerce of the small town and for small businesses.
So I appreciate the work Senators COLLINS, CARPER, and LIEBERMAN are doing and that they are engaged in this dialog about defending our small towns. I know they understand the impact that would occur. Maybe it is an impact that hits harder in some States than others. It certainly hits hard in Oregon.
I look forward to continuing to work with the sponsors of our amendment, lead by Senator McCaskill, and to working with the floor leaders of the bill because we must not pass through this Chamber a bill that would carve the heart out of the economy and the communications of rural America.
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