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Dave Olson, Published October 09 2012

Cuts to strip many area rural post offices of experienced hands behind counter

BUFFALO, N.D. - Maxine Rust recently retired after nearly 19 years as postmaster of the post office here, making her the longest-serving postmaster Buffalo has ever had.

“I feel really fortunate I was able to be out in Buffalo as long as I was,” said Rust, 55, who retired as part of a U.S. Postal Service plan to reduce costs nationwide.

Under the plan, about 13,000 small post offices will see their office hours reduced between now and September of 2014.

Full-time postmasters can take early retirement incentives or stay on the job for up to two more years, when they will be subject to layoffs.

As post office positions become vacant, the Postal Service will hire someone to fill in for two, four or six hours a day, depending on the location. Community meetings will be held to explain the changes.

The plan was developed as an alternative to an earlier controversial proposal that called for closing many small post offices.

Nor gloom of night

While the latest plan means more post offices will remain open, Rust sees the reductions as eroding a service that many in small towns have come to rely upon.

As postmaster, Rust said she spent many nights at the Buffalo Post Office because she was snowed in, or because a blizzard was on its way and she knew she wouldn’t make it in the next day from her home in Casselton.

Rust said that dedication comes naturally to someone who views their job as a career, but she wonders if the same will hold true for those who will be paid much less and receive fewer or no fringe benefits for doing the same job.

Rust said she feels good about her own replacement because the new postmaster worked with her for a number of years while learning the ropes.

“Does every community have someone who can fill that role and make a living on two, or four hours a day for six days a week for low pay and no benefits?” Rust said.

Experienced employees are valuable, but future staffing is likely not going to be a problem, said Pete Nowacki, a spokesman for the Postal Service in the Twin Cities.

“We’re confident we can find people who are both willing and qualified to take on this work,” said Nowacki, acknowledging that with any new hires getting up to speed takes time.

“There’s no doubt that with experience comes great knowledge,” he said, adding that is why the Postal Service hopes some retiring postmasters will come back to work under the new setup, which he said was designed to help the Postal Service survive.

Telling statistic

One statistic in particular is telling, Nowacki said. The volume of single, first-class mail, things like paying bills or sending a card to someone, dropped nearly in half over the last decade.

“Ten years ago, 5 percent of people might have been paying some bills online. Now, it’s closer to 60 percent,” Nowacki said.

One bright spot, he said, is parcels. “We’ve actually gained some volume in the package area,” he said.

Postal Service cutbacks many years ago were the reason Rust landed her job in Buffalo.

“The way I got out there was because of a major change in the post office back in 1992, when Marvin Runyon took over as postmaster general,” Rust recalled. “He was the kind of person who started slashing jobs. They called him ‘Carvin’ Marvin.’ ’’

Rust said her post office job in Fargo was eliminated, but because so many rural post offices lost postmasters an opportunity presented itself in Buffalo.

Rust said it didn’t take long for her to become attached to the town.

“I can remember when I first became postmaster, the first person in Buffalo to die really affected me,” she said. “The whole town was in mourning. I thought, ‘Wow, this really affects everybody.’ ’’

One of her regular customers was a woman who mailed baked goods to her grandchildren in college every month.

Rust maintained that rural post offices are particularly important to people who receive things like medicine through the mail, and she wonders what those folks will do if more reductions in service occur.

“What happens if they eliminate Saturday deliver?” she said.

Nowacki said change is inevitable for the Postal Service, but he said its long-term existence is not something to worry about.

“While we have seen some pretty radical change over the last several years, there were 168 billion customer interactions last year, where someone sent something through the mail.

“We’re still going to be around a long time,” Nowacki said.

Losing ‘a stickler’

Antoinette Babcock, president of the Buffalo City Council, said she will miss Rust’s experience and she worries shrinking post office hours may be a sign of further reductions to come.

“A lot of people are dependent on the post office for a lot of things,” she said. “Not everyone has access to the Internet and not everyone knows how to use the Internet.

“We’ve had a lot of elderly people in our town that have been dependent on doing a lot of things with our post office,” Babcock said, adding that Rust went the extra mile many times to help customers, including Babcock’s husband, William, who is an avid stamp collector.

“My husband has been collecting stamps from this post office since 1971,” Babcock said.

“There were years we didn’t live in Buffalo, and Maxine saw to it that the stamps were always here waiting for us when we’d come home on summer holiday.

“Maxine Rust was a fabulous postmistress, and she was helpful to the citizens of Buffalo in so many ways,” Babcock added.

“If you ever had a problem with a package, or anything at all, she would research and research and have the correct answer for you. She was a stickler,” Babcock said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555