By JOHN FLOWERS
RIPTON — Ripton residents, still struggling to secure federal aid to repair local roads, culverts and bridges hammered by last month’s flood, are now finding themselves taking on Washington, D.C., over the loss of yet another public asset: Their local post office.
Like the June 14 storm that swept away portions of North Branch Road and several of its connectors, last week’s post office closing came suddenly, stunning the more than 200 residents and businesses leasing mail boxes in the Ripton Country Store.
“A lot of people in the community are very upset,” said resident Paul Bortz.
So upset, that more than 170 people have signed a petition titled “Save the Ripton Post Office,” and more than 100 people rallied at a meeting on Tuesday evening to see what could be done to save their post office.
First came a sign in the store on Wednesday, June 25, stating closure of the small office was imminent. The next day, each box holder received a letter signed by East Middlebury Postmaster Sean T. Donahue confirming the Ripton Post Office would end what locals believe has been a more than 150-year run on Friday, June 27. The letter indicated that service was being transferred to the East Middlebury Post Office.
Adding to the shock for residents was the fact that the letter gave no explanation for the switch, other than “the Ripton Contract Post Office has provided the USPS with their termination notice effective Friday, June 27, 2008, at 5:30 p.m. As of June 28, 2008, we will no longer be delivering mail to the Ripton Contract Post Office.”
Donahue declined to comment and referred all questions to U.S. Post Service public relations office in New Hampshire.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Bonnie DeGray, the most recent Ripton postmaster, said she had submitted a bid to keep operating the post office, but it hadn’t been accepted by the USPS. So, since she couldn’t reach an agreement that was financially tenable, DeGray said she gave notice to the USPS months ago.
Ripton residents are still trying to discover why the USPS didn’t seek bids to replace DeGray.
“The bidding process just didn’t happen,” Town Clerk Sally Hoyler said. “That’s part of what we just don’t understand.”
The petition that Ripton residents submitted to the USPS urges it to maintain the Ripton Post Office as an asset that serves not only townspeople and local businesses, but three schools — Ripton Elementary, the North Branch School, and the Middlebury College Bread Loaf campus.
Signers of the petition also noted the Ripton Post Office has been a convenience not only for Ripton residents, but for the USPS itself.
“We feel that maintaining our small post office in the town center is more convenient and efficient over the alternative of rural delivery over 30 miles of mountainous roads; and to require over 200 households to drive four miles down a mountainous road to retrieve mail creates an unnecessary hazard and expense for our citizens,” reads the petition, which has been mailed to USPS brass in regional and national headquarters.
Kathi Roy, a New Hampshire-based spokeswoman for the USPS, said the closing of the Ripton Post Office occurred because “the contract supplier terminated the contract.” She declined to elaborate on the response, except to say that Ripton’s post office — like other small USPS outlets throughout the country — is made possible through a contract award, as opposed to the permanent, full-time postal outlets in larger communities.
Roy acknowledged receiving Ripton’s petition and said there is still a chance Ripton can maintain local USPS service. The “emergency suspension” of services in Ripton carries with it an opportunity for the USPS to scout out other potential providers and sites. Roy said on Monday she was unsure how much time the USPS would spend looking for alternative postal sites or alternative providers in Ripton.
“At this point, we will begin the process of soliciting alternative quarters,” Roy said.
Asked about the prospect of street delivery in Ripton (a service currently not offered in the town), Roy said, “if customers should want street delivery, they should petition with the East Middlebury Post Office.”
For now, however, people will have to get used to fetching their mail roughly four miles down Route 125 in East Middlebury.
“We want to extend our apologies to our customers in Ripton for the short notice,” Roy said.
News of the abrupt closure sent shock waves through a community that has maintained a waiting list for post office boxes and that has viewed its post office as an important public gathering place in which to do business and share news of the day.
“People got up in arms about this right away,” said Ripton Selectwoman Laurie Cox. “And most people didn’t just get upset; they started doing something about it.”
Cox said residents have individually sent letters and placed phone calls to officials ranging from USPS Postmaster General Jack Potter, to all three members of Vermont’s Congressional delegation.
On the local level, townspeople have staged peaceful demonstrations in front of the Ripton and East Middlebury post offices. They have kept abreast of the latest news, and weighed in with comments of their own, on the blog site www.riptonite.com.
BIG TOWN GATHERING
More than 100 people gathered on Tuesday at the Ripton Community House to further discuss the post office situation. Hoyler said participants agreed to immediately seek restoration of postal service in Ripton and to insist that the USPS not remove the mailboxes from the Ripton Country Store. If the boxes are removed they are not likely to be restored in the future, residents fear.
Hoyler said townspeople are also calling for the USPS to assign some temporary workers to Ripton to keep the post office running until a new, permanent staffer and possible new local site can be found.
Resident Cathy Swearingen said she’s disappointed the town has to now react to the sudden loss of its post office. She believes Ripton could have worked out a solution had the town been given more notice the office was in jeopardy.
“I feel like the community would’ve worked together to keep this from happening,” Swearingen said. “It’s pretty devastating for our little town.”
Residents are finding some allies in their battle with the USPS.
Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., sent a letter on June 30 to Potter urging that Ripton be allowed to keep its post office. A Welch aide said that after a conference call with USPS officials, the officials promised to send information on how it will take bids for a new contract post master for Ripton.
“The town of Ripton is a small, close-knit community,” the letter reads. “The Ripton General Store and the post office are a center and a primary gathering place for residents. We urge you to consider keeping the historic boxes and finding a replacement contractor as soon as possible so that the residents of Ripton may continue to receive their mail locally, as they have since the mid-1800s.”