As Amidon closes post office, others deal with challenges
AMIDON--The tiny Slope County town that long held the title of the nation's smallest county seat will be trading out its post office building for a cemented distribution box by the end of the month.
AMIDON-The tiny Slope County town that long held the title of the nation's smallest county seat will be trading out its post office building for a cemented distribution box by the end of the month.
The Amidon Post Office has been operating in its current location on Main Street for more than four decades. But ownership of the building recently changed and the lease will not be renewed.
The town and Slope County had a meeting about the post office situation at the end of August where they were presented with three options: find a new building to rent, find land to lease and the Postal Service would provide a modular building, or put up a Neighborhood Distribution Collection Box, which is an exterior post office box that can be accessed 24/7.
"I think most of us are pretty happy because we can get our mail all day long," Amidon Mayor Lois Merkel said.
Merkel said the new distribution collection box will allow residents to get their mail any time they want, rather than their usual two-hour time frame from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day.
"In the past, if we weren't there between 10:30 and 12:30-then on Saturday it was from 10:30 until noon-you were outta luck."
However, this isn't the first time that a community collection box will be used in place of a physical post office.
Manning, the Dunn County seat, lost its post office in late 2011 after the person who ran it decided to retire, according to Dunn County Commissioner Donna Scott.
"Our postmaster had reached retirement age and she spent quite some time looking for someone to replace her and they couldn't find anyone," Scott said. "Finally she just said, 'I want to retire and I want to move.' That's the reason we were given for the post office closing in Manning."
Manning residents had the option of either getting their mail in a private mailbox or from the collection box located in front of the Dunn County Courthouse. About half the residents decided to be a part of the collection box.
Peter Nowacki, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman, said during that time frame, the Postal Service in was looking at some of the smallest post offices nationwide for potential closure. The move was necessitated by plummeting mail volumes and revenues.
However, in 2012, Nowacki said they introduced a new strategy, called Post Plan, which kept smaller offices open but reduced window hours to better match actual customer traffic.
The USPS is not seeking to close post offices for operational reasons today, however.
Bowman Postmaster Jason Hirst said the combination of losing the building lease and being short staffed has made Amidon's situation extremely rare.
"Not only have we lost the lease, which most people don't do," he said. "There's nobody there in Amidon that wants to work in the office. I have been providing assistance out of Belfield and Bowman and Scranton for almost a year and a half now."
Hirst said it has cost them around $140 each day to staff the Amidon Post Office with just a single person for two hours, since the cost of someone driving to and from the town must be factored in.
"Amidon is a community with an older generation and they're not interested in working just two hours a day," he said. "There's very few young people in the area and so it's just, it is what it is."
Hirst, the former Watford City postmaster, said he believes the collection box, which will hopefully be completed by the end of October, will help Amidon residents be able to get their mail whenever they need and, although there won't be a clerk available to help them, they'll still be able to buy stamps and other postal related items through the Internet.
"They want to be able to pull up and get their mail and not have to wait for two hours," he said. "I think they're ready to just be done with this process. If no one wants to work the office and they can get their mail 24 hours a day, I think they're ready to start this."
Lack of staff stretches beyond Amidon and to many towns throughout southwest North Dakota.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., requested U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan visit North Dakota back in August in order to shed light on what rural post offices struggle with every day.
Heitkamp said that serious service concerns around the state similar to those in Amidon are the reason she is pushing the Postal Service to fulfill its obligation to rural customers who need efficient mail service.
"Feedback I got from folks in towns like Amidon through my Fix My Mail survey helped bring the Postmaster to North Dakota," she said, "and those stories continue to drive my work to improve mail delivery and hold the Postal Service accountable."
Dickinson Postmaster Wendy Key Polensky said she is currently low on staff for the Dickinson office after she lost several workers over the summer who moved away or got different jobs.
She said that many have transferred to other post offices across the country and that while it may happen on occasion, there's usually not so many people leaving the area at the same time.
"Usually when a person gets a post office job, they stick with it," Polensky said. "I'm also short on my supervisor side too because both of my two supervisors on the delivery side both got jobs back in their home states within just a couple weeks of each other."
She said they are currently doing their best to fill those positions, especially as more and more packages begin to arrive around the holidays.
Polensky is also in charge of the Gladstone, Taylor and New England post offices, and she said that while for many years it was difficult to staff those locations, she now has to utilize them as backups and fill-ins at the Dickinson location to get everything completed.
"If I need one of those clerks during the morning with the Christmas rush, they can come in here in the morning and sort parcels, and then go back to their regular job at 7:30 in the morning," Polensky said. "So now I'm borrowing from them instead of me loaning out to them."
The Gladstone and Taylor post offices have a clerk available from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, and the New England post office is staffed from 7:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. All three locations have secured buildings where people can get their mail at any time.
Polensky added that many Dickinson housing developments have a Neighborhood Distribution Collection Box.
"It's a more efficient delivery," she said. "The carrier just has one stop for however many customers are in that box."