Slowing postal: Free Union and the place we won't let go

The United States Postal Service– who needs it? Our whole society has gone electronic. With the availability of email, iPads, and smart phones, you need paper mail delivery about as much as you need a hi-fi for your vinyl records.

Well, now. If the above statements characterize your opinion, consider this scenario: The USPS has plans to close your post office. Not somebody else’s post office, but your very own. The one that’s so convenient, where you buy your stamps, mail wedding invitations, and send care packages to your college students– where you stop to chat with your neighbors and check out the bulletin board to see what’s for sale and whose dog is lost. And maybe you have an eBay business so you rent a post office box where customers can safely send you their checks.

Yes, you know that the USPS is said to be hemorrhaging money, but surely they can take aim at the many layers of their bloated bureaucracy and start the hunt for wasted money at the top. At the very least, they should pick on someone else’s post office, not yours.

If you happen to live in Free Union, this threat is not just theoretical. During the last week of June, our postmaster received written notice that the Free Union Post Office was being considered for DUO (“Delivery Unit Optimization”– fedspeak for “downsizing”).

Within a week, that consideration firmed up to “definite” status, and preparations began for the transfer of our two mail carriers and our sorting operation to the Earlysville Post Office– which is over eight miles away– by September 17th.

The given reason was “cost saving,” but just how all that to-ing and fro-ing between Earlysville and Free Union would save a nickel is a mystery to those of us who have taken an interest in this process. And there are a whole lot of us who are passionate about keeping our little post office intact.

Here’s why we care so much about what might appear to be an innocuous restructuring of duties and sorting: According to the USPS website, removing the carriers and sorting is the first step in dismantling a post office.

Step Two happens in a year or so (or whenever the lease is up) in the form of a resounding slap of the communal USPS forehead, as they suddenly declare that the building is too big for a mere retail outlet that sells stamps and accepts mail but no longer has its own carriers and sorting operation.

Who knew? Time to move out of that building! If there’s a store nearby, they might contract with the owner to sell stamps and accept mail. In time, the diminished retail operation may well disappear, and the destruction will be complete.

As you might expect, this situation is not unique to Free Union. In June, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe declared that nearly half of the roughly 32,000 postal facilities in our country will be closed in the next six or seven years. Half!

Call it the NIMBY effect if you like, but I call it community spirit. We collected over 300 signatures on our petition, which ain’t bad when you consider there are 635 mail boxes in all of Free Union.

Free Unionites have been writing letters to our federal representatives and to USPS honchos to advocate for the integrity of our post office. (One fact we make sure to include in our letters is that our post office actually makes a profit.)

Staffers in the offices of Senators Webb and Warner, and Congressman Hurt, lobbied the USPS on our behalf. Homemade signs dotted the roads of our community, reminding residents to attend a meeting in the basement of the Free Union Baptist Church, when officials from the USPS in Richmond were to go toe-to-toe with riled-up citizens.

At a recent organizational meeting, someone suggested forming a “Pitchforks and Torches” committee. It’s a joke, of course, but a telling one. Our post office is the heart of our sweet hamlet. We don’t want to go hurtling down that slippery slope and lose it.

I am happy to report that our efforts paid off: The USPS downsizing coordinator in Richmond just announced that Free Union has been crossed off the list of targeted post offices. That’s good news for us, but the downsizing will continue elsewhere.

The volume of first class mail may be shrinking, but we still need, and want, our post offices.

When my mother passed away this spring, the sympathy cards flowed into my mailbox and provided great comfort. Then, there were certified copies of the death certificate to be mailed, thank you cards to those who sent flowers, and packages sent to family with mementos from Mum’s possessions: a necklace, a scarf, a book. And all of it went through the USPS.

In case you’re wondering whether your post office will be among those closed in the next six or seven years, consider this: Your chances are fifty-fifty.

Then again, maybe you don’t care. Maybe you think that 21st century media will totally supplant the older way of doing things. If so, consider the passion that an audiophile brings to his collection of vinyl albums: You can try to take away his hi-fi, but there will be a battle.

Do we need to mention that frequent essayist and radio commentator Janis Jaquith lives in Free Union?

Read more on: Free Union


This entire paragraph is just stupid:
"When my mother passed away this spring, the sympathy cards flowed into my mailbox and provided great comfort. Then, there were certified copies of the death certificate to be mailed, thank you cards to those who sent flowers, and packages sent to family with mementos from Mum’s possessions: a necklace, a scarf, a book. And all of it went through the USPS."
You would have been able to send and receive mail from your front door even if the Free Union post office was closed (absolutely no disrespect meant towards your mother). The mail would simply be processed and sorted somewhere else. God forbid anyone has to travel EIGHT WHOLE MILES to buy stamps.

Start the hunt for wasted money at the top? Are you crazy, Janis? :)

The top level of management are the idiots who are sitting around trying to figure out how to close outlets and save money so their six figure incomes aren't put in jeopardy!

I applaud your victory with Free Union though. It's too bad the area couldn't have gotten about 200,000 signatures when this top level managment decided to close the local sorting and distribution center and transfer 200 employees to Sandston, Virginia. Last week I mailed a time sensitive 9 x 12 envelope to Harrisonburg on Tuesday, I put it in my carriers hand at 4:00 p.m. The envelope completed the trip to Harrisonburg 6 days later on the following Monday. Post office officials couldn't tell me where the envelope was or what was causing the delay because I didn't use the more expensive Priority Mail with a tracking capability. A postal employee on the lower end of the food chain told me it was most likely delayed in Sandston because they have taken on more sorting and distribution duties then they can handle. The person also told me the USPS doesn't have the trained staff to keep the new sorting machine up and running properly at Sandston. This in itself is creating a tremendous increase in destroyed and damaged mail when this high speed sorting machine jams.

Big Daddy G: My point in writing that paragraph was to illustrate the emotional ties many of us have to our Post Office. Yes, I could have sent and received those items in some other fashion, but I didn't. I took my packages and thank you notes to the little brick building in our village, the place where, like the Cheers bar, everybody knows my name.

Please define, "makes a profit."

My response to sentiments such as those expressed in the opening paragraph: There may come a time in your life in which you need to do extensive correspondence which, for legal reasons, email, tweets, and iPhones will not suffice. If/when that happens, you will thank your lucky stars their is an option that does not cost $11-14+ per. When the USPS wakes up and starts charging us what their service is worth, I for one will not complain.

Seriously, you live out in the Country but expect all the same services as living in town? One reason I didnt buy a house in the Country, lack of services. I.E cell phone coverage, internet, grocery store I can walk too, reaturants, etc.

Though I can understand how sad it would feel to have your local convenient post office go away, the reality is that USPS is dealing with a situation in which they do not bring in as much money and they have to find ways to cut costs. I would be fine with them terminating Saturday deliveries and eliminating local post offices. I think the USPS does a pretty good job and they can do a good job without the small offices. They have made their services convenient in other ways over the years (automated machines, internet services, etc).

The reality is that you are lucky to have an office so close to you. I live at the Lake, but am considered to be a Palmyra address. The post office is not close to me, nor do I rarely even go to Palmyra, so I do my post office duties in Charlottesville. At times that is not convenient either, but not everyone can have a post office right by them. But I do not think that driving 8 miles to Earlysville on a country road would be that big of a deal. I live in a rural area, so I know it can be done and it really isn't that bad. In fact it is better than driving across Cville to do postal business because you don't have a lot of stop lights or parking issues.

G: The money taken in by the Free Union Post Office retail operation (i.e., selling postage, envelopes, and boxes) exceeds the amount necessary to cover its operating expenses.

Janis, I very seriously doubt if daily sales of products and services are enough to even cover the salary and benefit package of the Free Union postmaster alone. Does the USPS own the building in Free Union, or do they pay rent? What is the salary and benefit package of the actual delivery person on the Free Union route? The delivery person has to make some type of reasonable income after he/she pays for their vehicle and gas. Does the Free Union postmaster have any assistants? And if so, what is the total of their salary and benefit packages?

The point is this..... it is a government office. It is suppose to be paid for or subsidized with taxpayer money. Just like every other government function is. I don't see the Federal court system taking in enough in costs and fines to be self sustaining. I don't know of any goernment function that takes in enough money to be self sustaining. I'm not sure why anybody expects the USPS to be self sustaining, it makes no sense to me.

Mr. Gasbag: You'll be shocked to learn that I did not perform a financial audit of the Free Union Post Office before writing this essay!

Two things I did learn in this process are 1) that the post office is not subsidized with taxpayer money. [From Wikipedia: "Since its reorganization into an independent organization, the USPS has become self-sufficient and has not directly received taxpayer-dollars since the early 1980s with the minor exception of subsidies for costs associated with the disabled and overseas voters."] And 2) that the Free Union Post Office does indeed make a profit. I was told that by the MPOO (Manager of Post Office Operations for the Mountain District of Virginia) Mr. Seay. He is no longer the MPOO. The new one is Sonny Cubbage, so you could check with him if you doubt this, or want further proof.

Another fun fact is that the USPS is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution.

Just think: once upon a time every posting on this page would have required buying a stamp, and mailing a letter-to-the-editor. So you wonder why the post office is in trouble? A mail carrier told me without a trace of irony in his voice that the Post Office sent out their notice of potential closings by (drum roll and cymbals) e-mail.

Sadly, as Ben Franklin knew, a post office is like a road: something the government has to do. Privatizing the post office did improve it with business-like efficiencies, but it is proving to be a public utility that can only subsist on taxes, money taken from us by force.

If Mr. Seay said the Free Union post office was self sustaining, I can see why he is no longer the MPOO. :)

And it appears to me that the concept of the USPS not receiving taxpayer dollars hasn't worked real well for them. Perhaps this agreement needs to be revisited and renegotiated in 2011 rather than close all the small postal outlets nationwide.

I still haven't gotten over their closing the local sorting and distribution center while telling everybody mail delivery would not suffer because of this closing. You will find that what they tell the public and what they discuss in internal memos are two different tales.


That seems like an incomplete analysis. Only a portion of the price of a stamp goes towards your local post office's budget. That stamp must also cover transport and delivery and all the fuel and salaries that go with that. It doesn't sound from your statement like that is accounted for, but I haven't seen the audit.

Further, whether or not the office is making a profit is not the most important metric. While it is a factor, it's possible they could be making even _more_ profit by closing that post office down, moving operations elsewhere (presumably Earlysville), and selling stamps out of the general store (is there one in Free Union?).

Make for a nice daily bike ride!


G, I don't think purchasing stamps is the major concern of people in having their closest postal outlet closed. It's the other services they provide. I was reading this morning, one such location in West Virginia has 800 P O boxes. Almost everybody picks their mail up at their post office box. Their outlet is on the list to be closed. And it's this way all over the country, especially in smaller communites such as Free Union.

If all a person needs is stamps, they can order them on the Internet and have them delivered to their home. But, any package or envelope over 13 ounces has to be presented in person to a post office for mailing. An ordinary citizen can no longer put the proper postage on a package or heavy envelope and hand it to their carrier when he comes by each day. To have to drive such a package or heavy envelope 10 miles to and 10 miles from a post office is two gallons of gas for a lot of people, or $7.00. Even with a more fuel efficient vehicle, driving 20 miles to and from a postal outlet is going to cost them $3.00 to $3.50.

Thank you very much, Janis, for your efforts and success.
And thank you for the entertainment from engaging GSOE.
Do you think a different building in F.U. has the potential
to serve as a community center?

Let's cut to the chase, here. Many of the financial woes of the post office (which loses BILLIONS each year) may be traced back to Public Law 91-375, the Postal Reorganization Act, of 1970. This is what, in theory, created the Postal Service as an “independent” organization which would be free of political interference and the patronage system. But if you read the act, it will be immediately apparent that the new system was given authority for most everything EXCEPT the cost of postage. That job lies with "Postal Rate Commission" whose 5 members are chosen by the President, and whose career backgrounds are almost entirely political.

So, in other words, the Postal Service was given the complete responsibility to run the system - but NOT the authority. And you can bet that while the PO itself may be insulated from direct political influence, the members of the rate commission are ALL ABOUT political influence. You can look it up.

Therefore the PO can ONLY deploy cost cutting measures, which DO fall within their authority. And when they do, what happens? People whine to their senators and representatives, who, despite the facial appearance of having no influence, actually DO have some.

Despite the smiles of Mr. Zip and those presumed postal workers depicted in happy talk TV commercials, the post office is not in the "feel good" business; they are in the mail delivery business. Thus, while I am sympathetic with those who lament the loss of their local PO, I'm uncomfortable about the idea of clamoring to keep any office open because of my emotional identity with the place or the people; not on MY nickel, anyway.

Meanwhile, much of the convenience of a local place can be found using the USPS web site, which lets you do on line much of what you would do in person. The notion that an ordinary citizen can't apply postage to a parcel and give it to their carrier is erroneous. In actual fact, you can print and pay for the shipping label on line, and call or use the web site to tell them to pick up the package at your door. How's THAT for service?

Rob: GSOE? "Get Some of Everything"?

Why do people always argue with me?????

As a victim of this new "13 ounce" rule, I can tell you from experience that you can't put postage stamps on any package weighing over 13 ounces.... or large envelope weighing over 13 ounces.... and hand it to your carrier. The carriers will not accept a package or envelope weighing more than 13 ounces even with the proper amount of postage stamps attached to them.

My carriers at home and office have refused packages and envelopes from me, and have told me that I have to take them into a post office in person to mail. This was a direct result of some terroist act, the government figures no bomb can be manufactured under 13 ounces (the silly excuse given to me by carriers, I can make an pretty efficient bomb under 13 ounces).

If this is in error, the carriers need to be retrained.

Direct quote below from the USPS web site Q&As......


Limitations on what can be picked up using Carrier Pickup

· Hazardous materials must meet all packaging, labeling, and other United States Postal Service® mailability standards in the Domestic Mail Manual or International Mail Manual as applicable. This includes items that contain anything fragile without proper packaging or liquid items.

· Additionally, individual items cannot exceed:
o 70 pounds
o 108 inches in total length and girth

Mail pieces weighing more than 13 oz. bearing postage stamps for postage must be taken by the customer to an employee at a retail counter at a Post Office, Contract Postal Unit, or Approved Shipper location.

· For more detailed information about what can be mailed, customers should reference the Domestic Mail Manual, which is available online at (

Robert Arthur (and Janis), I think the victory in Free Union will be short lived. The USPS is closing as many outlets as they can where there is no public outcry. When the public doesn't contest a closing, it's like shooting fish in a barrel to the USPS. But once the
USPS announces a $10 billion dollar loss next year, and a $12 billion dollar loss in 2013, they will come back and take a second swipe at the ones they passed over this time.

You see, I didn't even have to answer your query.
He did,--and he sure came through with
"I can make an pretty efficient bomb under 13 ounces."

Rob: Oh! Light dawns on Marble Head, as my father used to say. I think of him as "Mr. Gasbag." I wish people would post under their own names.

One of the first criminal jury cases I ever sat through was a change of venue from Southwest Virginia. A commonwealth attorney had his hands blown off and suffered a loss of hearing when he picked up a Pringles potato chip can off the top of his vehicle. It weighed nowhere near 13 ounces.

Having said the above, I still question how the USPS came up with their "13 ounce" rule to exempt honest law abiding citizens from using postage stamps and handing packages and large envelopes to their carriers.

What AM I doing?

OK, please tell us why this Commonwealth's Attorney used two hands to lift a Pringle's can off his car?
Sincerely, I'm curious.

I do not recall all the fine details. It was 35 to 37 years ago. I think perhaps he was lifting the can with one hand and opening it with the other at the time it detonated? He thought it most likely garbage and that his children had left it top of his car. Turns out it was some past defendant that was still extremely upset with this commonwealth attorney.

The bomb was detonated with a mercury switch, once the can was tilted the mercury made contact and detonated the bomb.

You wouldn't believe the people involved in this trial, witnesses for the commonwealth or defense! It was like something straight out of the Deliverance movie.


You can ship packages over 13 ounces. You just can't use the old fashioned paid for with cash postage stamps.

If you have a computer you can print up shipping labels for your parcels, which are accepted the same as stamps for purposes of shipping your over 13 ounce packages.

The reason these are accepted and regular stamps are not- is because the labels can be traced back to a specific computer IP and require the use of a credit card (or check card with Visa or MC logo).

Additionally - in response to a previous commentor- the Postal Service was not "Privatized" it is simply and "Independent not for profit Agency of the Federal Government" that is supposed to be self sustaining.

Many of their current financial problems can be attributed directly to the requirement that they PREFUND future retiree benefits. A requirement that is not made of any other business organization public or private.

And you are 100 percent correct that the move to Richmond of the Cville Airport USPS processing facilities has negatively affected your delivery of magazine and catalog shaped mail. They cannot handle the volume of mail they are getting and routinely delay it. This would be a federal crime if your mail carrier were doing it. Check your catalogs and 3rd class mail for "Requested In Home Dates" and you'll see how late you are really getting your mail.

Bob, I was able to fix my problem myself. The large envelopes I mail can be split into 2 envelopes if they exceed 13 ounces. I'm just not that much into the online postage and printing options because I don't have time for it every day. But there's people nationwide in small communities that don't have the online options available to them at all, or still on the old slow dial up modems. When their community postal outlet is closed, they then have to drive 10 to 15 miles to the next closest post office. And the millions of elderly citizens who might have access to high speed Interent, but never have used it and won't start using it just to print lables and stamps.

I already know how late I am in getting my mail. All of the special promotional offers I get from J C Penney and Kohls are expired before they get to my house most of the time. And on the sending end it taking a 9" by 12" envelope I mailed six days to go from Charlottesville to Harrisonburg. One postal employee told me there was no way to track the envelope. Another postal employee who I felt was being quite honest told me he was quite sure it was sitting in Sandston and would be sorted and sent in the right direction as soon as Sandston got around to it. And on top of all of this, receiving a $2,000 check that had been mutilated and chewed up when the newfangled 100 yard long sorting machine jammed up in Sandston. It was in a plastic postal bag with "We're sorry" printed on the outside of it. And it took me 10 days to have this check replaced with a new one.

I'm sure the closing of the Charlottesville sorting and distribution center probably saved a few dollars. This prevented a few six figure salaried deadwood employees up the food chain from being laid off. While at the same time it it slowed local mail delivery down, something the USPS promised would not happen. And causing 200 local employees to have to drive anywhere from 50 to 120 one way to continue getting to work.

I never used the Internet to receive and pay monthly bills until recently. But after I saw incoming and outgoing mail delayed so badly over the last year, I set up online banking to both receive and pay my bills. I'm only one person with about 10 assorted bills per month. But the postage to and from me still amounted to a loss of about $8 a month to the post office. Multiply this by x amount of people nationwide and it's pretty clear that the post office is cutting off their nose to spite their face.

edit: The above was suppose to read...

"And causing 200 local employees to have to drive anywhere from 50 to 120 miles one way to continue getting to work."

A small fortune in gas could be saved if they would eliminate one day of home delivery per week, or, god forbid, two. This was discussed two years ago, but not implemented.

Sorry that I'm late to this forum but I just read Mrs. Jaquith's piece in the Hook this morning. I thought that it was amazing. If I may be so bold though, I would have retitled it, “Here in a Nutshell is Everything That is Wrong With America Right Now”. How timely indeed that Mrs. Jaquith highlights that most common of current American sentiments, namely, “yes we need to make cuts, just not to anything that affects me”.
In case you haven’t bothered to look up the numbers or run the math allow me to save you the hassle of investigating the facts. The USPS will lose $8.5 Billion this year, which is $23.3 Million a day; just shy of $1 Million an hour or a tad over $16k a minute! This is not a minor deficit. This is a sea change in the way that we transmit information and much like carrier pigeons and the Pony Express, the USPS as we know it today is going bye bye whether people ( like Mrs. Jaquith) like it or not.
I have to applaud “Big Daddy G” and “Market Street” who rightly point out that we all make decisions in life and those decisions have ramifications. Mrs. Jaquith chose to live in the country and with that choice comes the reality that there are fewer services readily available to her. In fact she might have to travel a bit to see a movie or buy a gallon of milk, and now she’ll have to drive a few miles to mail a package. These were all reasons that my wife and I chose not to live in Free Union despite its obvious charm. My choice has consequences too, I no doubt hear more noise than Mrs. Jaquith, my nearest neighbor is 40 feet away and there is a lot more traffic here too.
As GSOE rightly pointed out, Mrs. J’s victory will be short lived because with first class mail expected to decline by at least 6% a year, and the USPS expected to lose even more money in the years to come, Free Union and a lot of other post offices are going to close and I expect that we’ll all be dealing with Monday, Wednesday, Friday mail delivery here soon enough too. You know what though? I’m OK with that as I get that we’ll all have to suck it up and take one for the team as we adapt to a changing world and a changing fiscal reality.

Agreed, Erik. When my wife retires I hope to build a small log cabin on top of a small mountain out in Boonesville. I will have nobody but myself to blame for all the inconveniences this will create.

Another point I do not recall being discussed here is postal rates. If everybody and their brother didn't whine like a bunch of babies about price increases, the USPS might not find themselves in the shape they are in now. Who else in the entire USA will deliver a letter from Virginia to California for 42 cents? People buy $2 trash stickers in the city all day long so as to have their garbage carted off by the bag, but God forbid they have to pay 42 cents to mail a letter. I have no objection to a first class letter being $1.00 right now. It would easily cost me more than $1.00 to drive across town and pay my Comcast bill alone.


"yes we need to make cuts, just not to anything that affects me"

I find I must agree with you on this, and I find that it is probably what makes me laugh at the Tea Party the most. Americans want stuff but they don't want to pay for it. As wages decline and life styles decline, they feel the pinch, but won't make the real changes in their society to fix that. They reward the I got mine, and then complain when they see their own opportunities dwindle.

Free Union (and Boonesville) aren't exactly the back of beyond.
Why should we expect lower services? My main kick is the fact
the roads aren't plowed (I was stuck out here once 2 weeks).
Maybe our taxes should be lots lower if we do get lower services.
(It takes rescue services 45 minutes to go 13 miles--some of the time
spent phoning you to find out where you are). The people who will
really suffer are people out West where the PO is an
important center of the community in remote areas.

I read all the comments and found one thing very interesting. Talking about cuts and expenses and costs with post office...there is one person on here making comments who has been a system sucker for years. Claiming to be "disabled"....collecting funds every month for claiming to be DISABLED...BUT at any time you can see this person working in the yard...riding his bike all around free union and STILL collecting a check EVERY month for a disabiltiy...really?

juicey, if you report the person, they have investigators that will look into this fraud. You would be amazed at what they can do with telephoto lenses now. There's a lot of people on disability that's just as healthy and able as you and I are.

Mer, lower taxes for less services back in the woods? We can't even get lower taxes for less services and I only live a mile from City Hall. Trash pickup isn't even included in the taxes any longer. Can't get a cop to respond to much anymore. If somebody comes onto our prorperty and steals stuff, they cop shoppe wants you to file a report online or by phone. They don't even look at the scene of the crime or attempt to take fingerprints any longer. Had a felony larceny at my office, after waiting 3 hours I called them back and told them just to forget about it. The fire department still does a pretty good job. You call, they come, period! They magically still find the time to do their job and serve the citizens effectively and efficiently. The rescue squad does an excellent job, but they are a volunteer service of course.