Patrons and employees of two small Sonoma County post offices considered for closure by the U.S. Postal Service breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday with the announcement that they will be spared, along with thousands of others nationwide.
Bending to strong public opposition, the Postal Service backed off a plan to close 3,700 rural post offices — including in Camp Meeker and Villa Grande — after May 15 and instead proposed keeping them open with shorter operating hours.
"We just got an email from the main office saying we are not going to close now," said Val Larson, the officer in charge of the Camp Meeker post office, sounding relieved Wednesday afternoon.
The news wasn't all good. Those offices that will remain open likely will have their hours of operation cut drastically.
Camp Meeker and Villa Grande are scheduled to have their hours cut from eight to four hours a day. Camp Meeker is open six days a week and Villa Grande five.
Other rural post offices in Sonoma County also could have their hours reduced, from eight to either four or six. Those that would have theirs hours halved include Duncans Mills, Jenner and Stewarts Point. Going to six hours a day would be Bodega, Valley Ford and Eldridge.
Though the prospect of having her office close completely was alarming, Villa Grande Postmaster Jeannie Ramirez took the latest announcement in stride.
"I just go with the flow. That's all you can do," she said.
Larson said her post office is a meeting place for all of Camp Meeker.
"It would be terribly sad to have a shutdown because we're the only thing our town has," she said. "Camp Meeker used to be more bustling than Occidental, with shops and hotels, and a bowling alley and a library. And now it's just the post office."
The reductions, or possibly other compromises to avoid shutting the offices, won't happen until at least August, said Postal Service spokesman James Wigdel.
Other post offices in Mendocino, Lake and Marin counties also are affected. Among them are: Tomales and Dillon Beach in Marin; Comptche, Elk and Manchester in Mendocino County, and Finley, Clearlake Park and Glenhaven in Lake County.
Statewide, the move affects 264 rural post offices, some that could be open just two hours a day.
The move to halt the shuttering of low-revenue post offices followed months of opposition from rural states and their lawmakers, who said the cost-cutting would hurt their communities the most.
In recent weeks, rising opposition led Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to visit some rural areas in a bid to ease fears about cuts that could slow delivery of prescription drugs, newspapers and other services.
The new proposal must go through regulatory approval, and will include another round of meetings with locals affected by the changes, Wigdel said. The number of hours a local office will be open will depend on how busy the office is now.
The cost-saving measures also include early retirement incentives for postmasters.
The Postal Service has been grappling with losses as first-class mail volume declines and 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.
Postal officials say they will face a cash crunch in August and September, when the agency must pay more than $11 billion to the Treasury for future retiree health benefits.