Rural Kentucky towns worry about losing their post offices

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 1, 2011 

The post office in Wildie, Ky.

HANNAH POTES | STAFF

For shrinking rural communities in Kentucky, it's usually the local businesses that close first. Then the schools consolidate. And now, it seems, the local post offices in some of Kentucky's tiniest towns might be closing their doors.

That's the plan, anyway, as the U.S. Postal Service considers shutting down 130 post offices across the state.

"We used to have a high school and a train depot — everything was distributed from Lackey," said Becky Hall, who works at the Lackey Post Office, one of those marked for possible closing. "The post office is all we have left."

Lackey's office has 78 post office boxes, used by 78 mostly elderly people who come by almost every day to pick up their mail. Many of them walk.

"We have an 89-year-old lady who walks here every day to get her mail," Hall said. "That's what I worry about: How will people like her get their mail?"

But Kentucky's graying, shrinking rural population means that in many places, there simply aren't enough people to support a separate post office.

The rural United States is just 16 percent of the entire county, according to recent U.S. Census data. In Knott County, where Lackey is located, the population dropped 6 percent in the past decade.

Financial troubles in the U.S. Postal Service have triggered the possible shutdowns. The postal service lost $8 billion last year, partly because 50 percent of U.S. citizens now pay their bills on-line, said David Walton, a spokesman for the service in Louisville. Nationwide, the system is looking to close 10 percent of its retail offices, most of them in rural areas. In the past four years, the service has cut its staff by about 130,000 and reduced costs by $12 billion.

Regardless of the reasons, closing post offices will be another blow to small-town Kentucky.

"The post office and the bank is all we have left," said Carl Gabbard, the mayor of Mackville in Washington County, which now has a population of about 200 people. The Mackville high school closed in 1966; the elementary school was consolidated in 1999.

"It's going to affect quite a few people. We have a lot of elderly people who depend on walking to get their mail at the post office," Gabbard said.

Still, he said, the people who are left in Mackville think the closing is inevitable.

Not necessarily, said Walton of the postal service. Not all post offices under review will close. In addition, the service is looking at a new concept called village post offices, in which another local business in a community, such as a hardware or grocery store, could sell stamps and have post office boxes.

"We can establish a postal presence that is operated by a business owner," Walton said.

Floyd County could lose as many as 10 post offices: in Bevinsville, Blue River, David, Dwale, Hueysville, Lackey, Minnie, Teaberry, Tram and Weeksbury. But Judge Executive R.D. "Doc" Marshall said he understands that rural home delivery will replace post office boxes.

"It's just become economically impossible to keep two people all the time in those post offices," Marshall said. "Rural delivery is cheaper."

Fleming County has three post offices on the list: Elizaville, Muses Mill and Plummers Landing. Judge Executive Larry Foxworthy said he worried about the loss of jobs, not more than 10 probably, but every one important in an economically depressed rural area, which has lost 4 percent of its population in the past decade.

"Plus, it means even further deterioration of infrastructure of everything else in a small community," Foxworthy said. "It's just another thing that small towns in Kentucky are having to deal with. It's not good, but I'm not sure what the answer is either."

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