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Community Fights to Save Berkeley Post Offices

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 11:46:00 AM
A notice on the wall of the Park Station post office at Sacramento and Russell streets alerts customers to possible consolidation plans for three Berkeley post offices.
Riya Bhattacharjee
A notice on the wall of the Park Station post office at Sacramento and Russell streets alerts customers to possible consolidation plans for three Berkeley post offices.
Richie Smith, right,  asks South Berkeley customer Hazel Perry to sign the petition Wednesday to save the city’s three post offices.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Richie Smith, right, asks South Berkeley customer Hazel Perry to sign the petition Wednesday to save the city’s three post offices.

In the past couple of days, customers at Berkeley’s South Station post office may have noticed a woman in a sun hat standing outside urging passersby to sign a petition. 

“Sir, would you like to sign a petition to save this post office?” she politely asked a gentleman walking out of the door Wednesday, introducing herself as Richie Smith. 

Smith, who lives a few blocks away on Alcatraz Avenue, is part of a recent community-wide effort to draw attention to a decision by the U.S. Postal Service to include three Berkeley post offices on a list for possible consolidation in face of a staggering budget deficit. 

The petition, which is being circulated around the South Berkeley Station at 3175 Adeline St., Park Station at 2900 Sacramento St., and Landscape Station at 1831 Solano Ave.—the three currently being evaluated for consolidation in Berkeley—calls on the postal service to “not close targeted stations of the Berkeley Post Office.” 

The petitioners say that they are opposed to the closures because it would force merchants and residents in the area to travel farther, lead to a deterioration in service resulting from longer lines and greater wait periods, and leave P.O. box holders with no other option except to relocate to more distant stations. 

Faced with a $7.5 billion loss in revenue this year, the postal service announced Sept. 2 that 413 retail stations and branches nationwide were still being considered for possible consolidation.  

The updated list was based on a study the USPS undertook this summer to examine a wide range of stations and branches in dense urban and suburban areas across the country, focusing on offices in close proximity in order to find out where consolidations might be feasible while still serving the needs of customers. 

“We are not driving the post offices out of Berkeley,” said Augustine Ruiz, a spokesperson for the Bay Valley district, which comprises 226 post offices from Berkeley to Santa Cruz and beyond. “We are looking at consolidating one station with another where they serve the same geographic area. We will keep in mind customer convenience and transportation. All we are asking for is a flexibility to determine our future by making all these difficult decisions so that we can remain a viable service in the days ahead.” 

But for people like Smith, who depend on their neighborhood post office, Ruiz’s words offer little consolation. 

“You see the set-up here,” she said, pointing at the parking lot outside the Adeline post office with her cane. “It is the only one in this area that has a parking space. Parking is very hard to come by in the other post offices, especially the main post office downtown.” 

Smith said that South Station is in a convenient location for aged and disabled residents, a lot of whom live in senior co-ops or assisted living in South Berkeley or would soon begin using the Ed Roberts Campus—a one-stop service center for the disability community located a few buildings down from the post office. 

“I can just walk here if I want to,” she said. “If it is closed down, I will have to drive to the one on Seventh Street in Oakland and spend hours just looking for parking. I am doing this not only for myself,but for other people as well. I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, but what about all the homeless people who can’t get their mail delivered to them? Where will they take their P.O. boxes?” 

A retired preschool teacher who now sits on the city of Berkeley’s Commission on Aging, Smith said she contacted her councilmember, Max Anderson, after reading about the post offices in the newspaper. Anderson’s aide then helped her to get hold of a petition. 

Darlene Carroll, who owns Berkeley Signs with her husband, signed the petition after collecting mail from the P.O. box inside, 

“Our business has had a P.O. box here for 20 years,” she said. “It’s really convenient. I don’t know what we would do if it closed down.” 

Ruiz said a total of 22 stations and branches in the Bay Valley district had found their way onto the list for possible consolidation after being recommended by their postmasters. 

The drop in revenue, Ruiz said, was mainly due to a significant dip in the volume of mail this year, down from 212 billion pieces in 2006 to an estimated 180 billion by the end of this year. 

Ruiz blamed the decrease largely on the electronic transaction business, which he said had eliminated the need for people to use the postal service to pay bills. 

“Institutions have found a way to do their transactions online through the Internet,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the recession. Businesses aren’t mailing as much as before.” 

A report by the USPS shows walk-in revenues for the Landscape Station to be the highest ($740,885), followed by South Berkeley ($464,316) and Park ($310,938) stations. 

Landscape also has the largest number of P.O. boxes—1136—with South Berkeley having a little more than 500. Park Station does not have any P.O. boxes. 

The USPS, Ruiz said, was also straining under a 2006 law that required it to pay billions of dollars in health retirement benefits for employees every year, something he said no other public or private agency was required to do. 

Ruiz said the USPS would make a decision based on the summer study by the first week of October. 

Rafael Blank was at the South Berkeley Station Wednesday collecting mail for his mother from a P.O. box. 

“I opened this P.O. box for my mother before she went away with the Peace Corps to Nicaragua,” he said. “I come here to get her mail two or three times every week. It would be a hassle if I had to look for a new box—she has to be here to sign for one, and she won’t be here for a couple of years.” 

At least 10 people started to queue up around noon to buy stamps, envelopes, and bubble mailers and to sign money orders. 

“This is by far my favorite post office,” said James Livingston, who lives in San Francisco and works at Berkeley Bowl. “The lady here is really nice, even though it’s always busy,” she said, referring to Lead Sales Associate Yolanda Williams, who has worked at the branch for six years. “I wouldn’t want to see this one close.” 

“I prefer the Park Station post office because I live near there, but this one has decent customer service as well,” said Yolanda Johnson. “Between the two of them, I don’t know which one should close. If the postal people don’t have the money—and I believe that—what about the people who don’t have the money to catch the bus to go to these limited-only post offices? Where are they going to go?” 

For many seniors, Johnson said, walking to their neighborhood post office to mail a letter or a bill was a “matter of dignity and pride.” 

“It pisses me off,” she said. “It’s a crying shame for the community.” 

Regulars at the Park Station branch were busy signing petitions Wednesday afternoon. More than 1,700 signatures have been gathered over the last seven days. 

“Why is it closing? When is it closing?” The barrage of questions hit Park Station’s only sales associate, Eleanor Neal, who has been at the branch for eight years. 

Neal knows her customers by name and sometimes skips her lunch break to help them out. Many of them live on fixed incomes and can’t afford to buy a computer or get Internet access to correspond with family and friends. 

“It’s going to be terrible,” said Shirley, a customer who has been shopping at the Park Station post office for 30 years. “I don’t have a computer, and I mail all my letters from here. I know the postal service is losing some of their business to e-mail, but it can’t be that bad.” 

Streamlining mailboxes, reducing staff and increasing the price of postage stamps for the last two years has not done much to solve the budget deficit, Ruiz said. 

Raising the value of postage stamps to 44 cents this year only helped to cover operational costs, Ruiz said, and did not address other expenses like transportation and fuel. 

“Raising the price of a stamp will not solve the problem,” he said. “And we don’t want to increase the price to a point where we drive business away.”