HACKER VALLEY, W.Va. – Retha Casto doesn't pay her bills online, connect with friends through Facebook or use GPS for directions. So when the U.S. Postal Service decided after 153 years to suspend operations at the Hacker Valley post office, the 87-year-old woman picked up her pen.
"For God's sake and yours too please think of the people — not just the money," she pleaded to the federal Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the Postal Service.
Casto's three-page, handwritten letter has spurred the commission to investigate whether the Postal Service violated procedures or the will of Congress when it shut down Hacker Valley and 96 other post offices in 34 states over the past five years.
The cutbacks — which come as the financially ailing Postal Service struggles with a sharp decline in mail because of the Internet and the recession — have fallen most heavily on poor, rural communities, where the post office is not just a place to buy stamps, but a gathering spot where townspeople trade news and gossip.
The post offices are typically modest operations, situated in leased space in the back of general stores or in other buildings.
The Postal Service cited an emergency — soon-to-expire leases — in suspending operations at the nearly 100 post offices. Ultimately, 25 were officially closed, five are facing closure, and Hacker Valley and 64 others are in limbo. Only two have reopened, including one in McCausland, Iowa, where community members held yard sales, pig roasts and bake sales to raise money to build a new post office.
At issue in the dispute is the distinction between closing a post office and suspending service.
Under federal law, closings require 60 days' notice, opportunities for public comment, an accounting of the reasons for the decision and an opportunity for residents to appeal. Suspensions, which are supposed to be used during natural disasters, health or safety hazards or unanticipated lease problems, do not carry the same requirements.
Under suspensions, "the office is not closed, but as far as customers are concerned it's not open," said Norm Scherstrom, a Postal Regulatory Commission spokesman.
Last fall, the commission said the evidence strongly suggests the Postal Service used suspension procedures at the Hacker Valley post office last July to skirt the closing requirements laid out by Congress. It rejected the argument that the loss of the lease constituted an emergency, noting that the landlord had given at least three years' notice.
The commission is still investigating the suspensions and could refer the matter to Congress. Townspeople in many of the communities — including Midland, Ohio; Coralville, Iowa; Crescent Lake, Ore.; Prairie City, S.D.; Laketon, Ind.; and Howell, Utah — are hoping Congress intervenes and rescues their post offices.
Postal Service spokesman Greg Frey declined to comment on the investigation.
Officials in the historic resort town of Crescent Lake say the suspension of their post office and loss of their own ZIP code caused confusion for search-and-rescue personnel called in after a plane crash and forest fire. Both times, rescuers mixed up Crescent with Crescent Lake and set up bases far from the scene, community members say.
They also note that an elderly man died on snow-covered roads driving to the next-closest post office 17 miles away.
The suspensions come as the Postal Service has raised rates, cut the number of employees from 800,000 to 623,000 and eliminated 12,000 carrier routes because of a $7 billion deficit. It is also looking at additional cuts, including the closing of hundreds of post offices, Frey said.
"Life is changing," he said. "We have to make customers understand there are other ways to get the services we provide."
Retired postmaster Betty H. Eickler of New Paltz, N.Y., said she understands the Postal Service is losing money, but closing rural post offices, which account for about 1 percent of its expenses, is not the answer.
"They think everyone has a computer, but they don't," she said.
Hacker Valley, a town of 570 that is home to West Virginia's second-largest state park, is one such community. Its dozens of basket weavers, furniture makers, potters, quilters and musicians cater to thousands of tourists each year who enjoy the region's natural springs, waterfalls and other outdoor attractions.
Before the Postal Service shuttered the Hacker Valley office, it held a public meeting to tell residents the building's lease had been terminated, the post office was losing money and a building freeze would prevent the construction of a new office.
Despite the community's offers to build a new facility or bring the existing building up to code at no cost to the Postal Service, or lease a recently vacated school cafeteria building for a nominal fee, "the USPS thumbed their noses at us," said Brian Von Nostrand, a potter and chairman of the local committee to reopen the post office.
Casto, like many of her neighbors, embraces her isolation and independence, and resents having to drive 21 miles on winding mountain roads to the nearest post office.
"It don't make sense to me," she said. "We need our post office."