WASHINGTON

Beverly Sigfrinius isn't moving, but the Postal Service wants to give her a new address.

That's hardly the worst part of shuttering the town post office in the shrinking Iron Range town of Calumet, where she uses the same post office box she inherited from her parents in the 1950s.

Calumet, like 117 communities across Minnesota, and thousands of others across the nation, is slated to lose not just a post office, but the social hub of a town where neighbors meet and get caught up. To Sigfrinius, 79, It's someplace to go in a town that's watched helplessly as one Main Street business after another shuts its doors and leaves.

To the U.S. Postal Service. the office in Calumet, pop. 367, is part of a $13 billion debt problem, with $25 million in losses piling up every day like the mail. Lawmakers in Washington are racing against a May 15 deadline to pull it back from the brink of bankruptcy, while at the same time trying to soften the blow to such small towns as Calumet.

That's the hope of Sigfrinius, Mayor John Tuorila and 180 other longtime post office box holders in Calumet, who have decided that their post office isn't going down without a fight. They've gone to Congress, where the town got a shout-out on the Senate floor from Minnesota Democrat Al Franken.

More than 70 people packed a town meeting a few months ago, and Tuorila has coordinated a letter-writing campaign imploring members of Congress to stand up for their local post offices, which are often a fixture of small-town life.

The irony is not lost on Tuorila that many of the constituent letters were transmitted via e-mail. "All avenues were open," he said.

'About money'

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has said that if Congress blocks the cuts he wants to make after this month's deadline, his agency, which receives no tax dollars, faces a continuing "death spiral."

The Postal Service says it can save up to $45,000 a year by closing the Calumet Post Office and extending rural route services. For residents who don't live along a carrier route, or who don't set up a mailbox in some other central location, the next closest full-service post office is in Pengilly, about 4 miles away.

Either way, residents like Sigfrinius will get new addresses. Only the town's name and ZIP code will remain the same.

It's all part of a $20 billion plan of budget cuts nationwide, as walk-in traffic and mail volume drop in places like Calumet, once a bustling mine town.

Given the economy for the past few years, Tuorila says that's no surprise. The Howling Wolf gift shop is gone, the Roadway Inn bar stopped doing business months ago, and now Dale Worth, owner of Snowball Mountain Guns, a mainstay over the past 23 years, is "retiring."

Having watched the mines shut down, people in Calumet understand the need to cut costs. But to an aging population that recalls elm-lined trees and kids climbing earthen slagheaps known as the dumps, the post office is not just another business.

Some of the letter-writers ask questions about the social costs of saving Uncle Sam a few thousand bucks -- particularly on the backs of a few hundred older folks and retirees who worked hard their whole lives, provided a nation with the steel it took to win a world war, and don't particularly care for second-class treatment by the Postal Service.

"Everything is about money, it seems," said Sigfrinius, a retired Itasca County Court administrator. "If it were a huge amount of money, I could see them closing the post office. But for a minimal amount like that, I'm sure they can find the money without breaking the postal budget."

'Such a loss'

Facing bankruptcy, Donahoe laid out a nationwide plan to slow delivery, end the possibility of next-day service for first-class mail, and possibly eliminate mail on Saturdays. He would also close nearly 3,700 mostly rural post offices around the nation, trimming tens of thousands of postal jobs through retirement, buyouts and attrition. The cuts also would hit 250 processing facilities, including five of seven centers in Minnesota. Mail-sorting operations in Duluth, Bemidji, Mankato, Rochester and Waite Park would be centralized in the Twin Cities.

Franken and fellow Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar helped work provisions into a Senate bill last week that would put off rural post office closings for two years. They also backed a measure to give more appeal rights to such towns as Calumet that are on the chopping block.

The legislation now goes to the House, where GOP leaders are considering a bill that would give the Postal Service more latitude to cut costs.

U.S. Rep Chip Cravaack, a Republican who represents northeastern Minnesota, remains undecided. He said he will consider any proposal that would "put the Postal Service on a path toward solvency and sustainability." He added, "The last thing we want is a situation down the road where the government has to bail out the Postal Service."

Closing post offices and lowering delivery standards, Franken argues, would trigger a "death spiral" of its own: pushing business toward the Internet and private delivery services.

Some analysts see it as part of a trend toward privatization, with a shrinking Postal Service abandoning rural America much like the railroads, the airlines, and other businesses.

"The local post office is often not only a community institution, but in rural areas, it's the only one left," said David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Morris argues that the Postal Service's financial problems are a "manufactured crisis" prompted by overpayments to a federal pension fund and large prepayments for future retiree health benefits.

The new postal reform package is expected to address those problems. But it remains to be seen whether that leaves room in the budget for a post office in Calumet. If it doesn't, Sigfrinius said, "it would be such a loss."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.