Residents of Chebeague Island are rallying against a proposal by the U.S. Postal Service to cut the business hours of the island’s post office by half.

If the cut is made, service could be reduced to four hours a day by January. It’s now open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, with a lunch break at 2 p.m., and from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Year-round inhabitants of the popular summer destination in Casco Bay fear the change would impinge on their ability to communicate, shop and do business without going to the mainland.

“It’s almost as though they don’t know us,” said Deborah Bowman, director of the Chebeague Island Library. “I think the post office doesn’t understand how important postal delivery is for a small community.”

At a meeting in October, dozens of residents spoke against the proposed reduction in hours.

At the same time, a survey completed by 180 people showed that 87 percent preferred having the post office open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. if the cuts go through.

Those results may be misleading, islanders said, because the questionnaire did not include an option to leave the hours unchanged.

The proposed reductions are driven largely by the Postal Service’s crushing debt, brought on by the cost of workers’ benefits.

With the rise of email and the increased market share of companies such as UPS and FedEx, demand for old-fashioned paper-and-stamp mailings has plummeted. But many of Chebeague Island’s permanent residents are older and still write letters.

In 2006, Congress imposed rules stipulating that the Postal Service save billions of dollars to pay for health benefits for retired workers each year.

The Postal Service defaulted on a $5.6 billion payment in September, the second time this year it failed to set aside the money, The New York Times reported in October.

“That’s a mandate most businesses in the country would find crippling,” said Tom Rizzo, a spokesman for postal operations in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.

The decision is now in the hands of postal officials in Washington, D.C., said Rizzo, who dismissed residents’ suggestions that Chebeague Island’s hours could remain unchanged.

“That’s not an option,” he said.

The meeting in October produced jeers from residents when the Postal Service listed alternative post office locations, all of which would require a ferry ride and a drive.

“I don’t think they realized the color blue on a map represents water,” said John Holt, the deputy town clerk. “They professed, by their actions and statement, no clue who their audience was.”

Maine’s two members of Congress are advocating for longer hours on Chebeague and five other islands that are due to see their hours reduced to either two or four hours a day.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud sent a letter to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe on Friday advocating on behalf of Chebeague, Cranberry Isles, Isleboro, Long Island, North Haven and Swan Island.

They argued in the letter that the Postal Service is just as important a connection to the mainland as any ferry, and that six hours a day should be considered a “bare minimum.”

“A mile by road is not the same as a mile by water,” Pingree wrote. “To travel to the mainland is often an all-day affair.”

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.

Chebeague islanders are left to wait and hope that the letter has the intended effect.

“For a small place, we do a fair amount of business,” said Donna Colbeth, a resident of 45 years. “And it’s the only game in town.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com