USPS delivers bad news to Clam Gulch postmaster

Redoubt ReporterFebruary 21, 2014 

CLAM GULCH -- When MaryAnn Dyke took the job as postmaster in Clam Gulch 10 years ago, she figured she'd stay there "until I either tipped over or could no longer do the job," she said.

It didn't occur to her that it might be the post office itself tipping out of existence, taking her job along with it.

But that might well be the case. Starting in the fall, operation of the Clam Gulch Post Office will be reduced to four hours a day with the postmaster position eliminated, she said, and the office will come up for re-evaluation -- and possible closure -- after that.

Budgetary woes and resultant restructuring throughout the postal service are the cause of the change. The U.S. Postal Service faces several budgetary challenges, including a law passed in 2006 that requires pre-funding its retirees' health care costs, as well as a decrease in customers using USPS services.

"I hardly see Christmas cards anymore. Fewer birthday cards, Valentine's cards -- all of that," Dyke said.

The USPS pays its bills through charging for postage and services, so its options to make up a shortfall are to cut operating costs -- an ongoing, nationwide process -- and raise rates. The postal service requested an "emergency" rate hike that went into effect in January.

In considering reducing hours or closing post offices, priority is being given to maintaining services in rural areas. And while Clam Gulch is certainly nobody's idea of urban -- the census notes 176 residents -- it is on the road system, along the Sterling Highway between Soldotna and Homer.

Dyke thinks Clam Gulch's proximity to Kasilof 10 miles up the road, which serves a larger population base at its post office, is a big reason for the change to her office. But she sees the importance of the Clam Gulch office as more than just sending and distributing mail for its immediate neighbors. The office serves about 160 families, she said, and in the summer, in particular, it is used by a much larger swath of the peninsula.

"We serve a lot of tourists in the summer because we're right on the highway, and we even have customers from Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Homer on their way either to Anchorage or to the big-box stores in Soldotna and Kenai. This will be inconvenient for them, too," Dyke said.

Dyke thinks it will also be a detriment to the area beyond just the inconvenience of reduced postal hours. The office is the only "official" office in Clam Gulch. There is no visitors center or chamber of commerce, and with the office's prominent location right on the highway, it's an obvious place for people to stop and ask whatever questions they might have, from how to get to the clamming beaches to where's the nearest spot for lunch.

"I'm kind of like the chamber of commerce here, which is fun. This will definitely affect the community, but change is inevitable," she said.

Change has been coming in waves to the Clam Gulch office, and the USPS as a whole.

The most recent "emergency" rate increase in January appears to be here to stay. There's a continuing effort toward streamlining services, with the goal that efficiency saves money. For instance, about two years ago all Clam Gulch's outgoing mail was put on a truck to be sorted and directed in Anchorage, rather than a letter from Clam Gulch going directly to Homer or wherever else it was headed.

"It's more efficient. There's less separating, less hands involved. There's no effect on delivery time," Dyke said.

In the spring Dyke got a half hour lunch break in her day, rather than working through a straight eight hours five days a week.

"That's actually been nice. Everybody here has seen me eat -- I come to the counter with peanut butter on my face. Now I get to sit down and have lunch," she said.

And she's done what she can to trim costs at her office.

"I've always had to pinch pennies, and I've tried really hard to do that," she said. She is the janitor, lawn mower, snow shoveler and sand sprinkler. She turns the heat down and wears a jacket. She uses the blank back sides of paper. She brings water from home so she doesn't drink from the office water cooler, allowing it to be filled less often.

"You take it on like it's your own business and run it as best you can," she said.

But being a federal agency, USPS changes affect policies, priorities and offices nationwide. That's a scary idea in Alaska, where mail service, particularly to communities off the road system, is of much greater importance than it would be where other means of shipping and transportation are more readily available and affordable.

Before moving back to Clam Gulch 10 years ago -- she had lived in the Homer area -- Dyke worked at the post office in McGrath for 23 years. Rural offices handle shipments of everything from letters to livestock (chicks and bees, for instance), building materials, clothing, household items and food.

The Postal Reform Act of 2013 is currently on its way to the Senate floor, and proposes several systemwide changes that cause particular heartburn in Alaska, one being a rate hike to standard parcel post -- the cheapest, and therefore preferred, method of shipping large, heavy items in the Bush.

"But you can't do that in Alaska. So many villages, that's all they have," Dyke said.

Another revenue-generating proposal is to allow the USPS to start shipping alcohol, which currently is not allowed. That's another challenge in Alaska, where some communities elect to be dry.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, met with the USPS Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and announced in early February amendments to the reform bill -- including a rollback of the increase to the standard post rate for Alaskans off the road system. Begich also secured a commitment from Donahoe to continuing Bypass mail service in the Bush. And Begich advanced an amendment to the Postal Reform Act that would ensure USPS respects state, local and tribal law when it comes to shipping alcohol.

For offices on the chopping block, such as Clam Gulch, Begich sponsored an amendment to impose a one-year moratorium on the closure on any rural post office, station or branch and to requite the Postal Service to allow customers to publicly meet and discuss possible changes before an office is closed or has its hours reduced. The Postal Service, according to Begich's amendment, would only be allowed to close a post office if it determines that the decision "would not limit customers' access to essential items and other timely deliveries," according to Begich's office.

Dyke said she expects a community meeting to be held in Clam Gulch sometime this summer.

"I really wish people would pipe up and say something about how we need this place," she said.

As for Dyke, "I'm being riffed," she said -- losing her job to a reduction in force.

Currently she works 40 hours a week at the post office, with a part-time employee working Saturdays, and another that can be called in to cover for her as needed. Come fall, the office will only be staffed part time, open four hours a day -- those hours to be determined after the community meeting. She's contemplating whether to take the part-time job. She could retire, but "income is good. I haven't won the lottery," she said.

She doesn't want to move. She likes the quiet of Clam Gulch, walking in the woods and along the Cook Inlet beach. And she really rather likes her job.

"I like the variety, I like the responsibility, I like helping people," she said. "I like waiting on people, I like helping them when they have concerns or they send special things through the mail. I like helping make sure it gets to the recipient, that it's packaged properly and labeled properly. Handing packages across the counter, like surprise ones people aren't expecting, to see their faces explode with happy is really cool."

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