June 2011


Who's who in the Postal Service debate? You can’t tell the players without a scorecard

June 30, 2011

What do the billionaire Koch brothers, whose money fueled the war against public workers in Wisconsin, have to do with postal reform?  Why does the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co—in the news recently because of its controversial study on Obama’s health care plan—play a part in the Postal Service’s plans to close post offices?  How have conservative think tanks contributed to the yammer to privatize the Postal Service?  Where do opponents of the post office, like the Tea Party and Congressmen Darrel Issa and Dennis Ross, get their support?  

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, so we’ve prepared a “Who’s Who in the Great Postal Service Debate” to help keep track of what’s going on. 

But this is not a game being played for fun.  The livelihood of postal workers is threatened, and there are hundreds of small towns and neighborhoods suffering the loss of their post offices.  A legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices that took two centuries to build may be dismantled in a matter of two or three years.  Historic buildings that belong to the American public are being auctioned off—in the middle of a real estate slump.  And humble little post offices, which cost next to nothing to maintain or lease, are being closed down to save a few dollars. 

Click here to go the Who’s Who page.  The list is just a beginning.  We’ll add more names as the days and weeks go by.  The debate over the future of the Postal Service has been going on for years, but with thousands of post offices potentially on the chopping block, it’s really just getting started.

(Image sources: Great Debate; Privatize)

Postal Service says, oops, didn’t mean to send those closure letters—yet

June 29, 2011

If you’ve been reading the news accounts of town meetings with USPS representatives that are held when they’re considering a post office for closure, you’ve heard this one before.  The citizens at the hearing just didn’t feel the representatives of the Postal Service were really listening.  It’s like the decision was already made.  Turns out that wasn’t just a feeling. 

The Postal Service has been studying the closure of three Arkanasas post offices, in Boles, Ozan and Parks, all located in the congressional district of Representative Mike Ross.  On June 14, the Postal Service held public meetings, as required by law, to hear from local citizens.  As the Times Record reported the next day, “Despite complaints from some present that the closing was inevitable and the meeting a mere formality, [Postal Service representative Jackie M.] Stubitsch said no final decision has been made. She said the fate of the post office will be made public in about nine months.”

But just over a week later, Ross received letters dated June 21 stating that a final determination had been made to close the post offices.  And then three days after that, Ross’s office received emails from the Postal Service saying the letters were sent erroneously and were being retracted.

Ross suspects the letters were boilerplate written before the public hearings had even been held, and he has sent a letter to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe requesting “a full accounting of the U.S. Postal Service’s review process for closing post offices.” Ross wants to know if the public hearings are held “simply to fulfill procedural requirements or if indeed the concerns of citizens are truly considered.” The whole story, including Ross’s letter, is in The City Wire here.

This is not the first time the Postal Service has been accused of deciding on a closing before hearing from the public.  An Advisory Opinion issued by the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2009 said that public comments are “often are not sought until after the initial decision to close the facility has already been made."

So the next time you read a news article and a citizen is quoted as saying that the Postal Service representative didn’t seem to be listening, you’ll know why.  The decision to close the post office has already been made, and the letter of a final determination has already been written.  It might even be in the mail.

(Photo credits: Congressman Mike Ross, Boles postmark)

The Postmaster General talks about privatization and real estate

June 28, 2011

If you’re a masochist or have nothing better to do, you might watch the video of Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe’s appearance on the Larry Kudlow show last week.  Kudlow begins the segment saying, “The US Postal Service is in big trouble, and now there’s talk tonight in Congress of a bailout. . . . Isn’t it time to end the monopoly and privatize the Service?”

Donahoe tries to set the record straight—the Postal Service is not going broke and it doesn’t need a bailout, just Congressional approval to stop requiring it to pre-fund retirement healthcare.  But what’s interesting is just how commonplace it’s become to advocate privatizing the Postal Service.

A few minutes later Larry gets to the point. “So Patrick, look, I love FedEx, Fred Smith is my favorite CEO.  Why don’t you let him absorb you? How about that? The guy’s a magician, he’s a miracle worker.  And he’ll make a deal with Google and you all can live happily ever after without a government bailout.”  Donahoe laughed off the idea and suggested the USPS might instead absorb Fed Ex.

But Fred Smith?  Besides being the founder of FedEx, Smith is a free market fundamentalist who has served on the board of directors of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank that cranks out white papers arguing for the privatization of the Postal Service.  Smith himself has written articles about how the Postal Service should be confined to non-competitive markets—the areas that FedEx won’t touch—and how it should be “dismantled as these markets shrink.”  In testimony before Congress in 1999, he said, “Closing down the USPS . . . is an option that ought to be considered seriously.”  In 2009, Smith and FedEx “launched a multi-million-dollar campaign against legislation that would make it easier for 100,000 of FedEx’s workers to unionize.”  According to this (socialist) website, Smith’s main contribution to the mailing industry “has been to undermine the union wages and conditions won by the U.S. postal and UPS workers.”

Later in the interview, Kudlow and Donahoe talk real estate. “You’ve got big real estate holdings,” says Kudlow.  “In some sense, you’re a real estate holding company.   Why don’t you make use of that and start selling off the real estate left and right?”

“We are,” replies Donahoe.  “As a matter of fact we sold the GPO (General Post Office) in New York couple of years for $230 million. . . .  We’ve sold properties all across the US.”

Too bad Donahoe didn’t take the opportunity to defend the Postal Service’s network of brick-and-mortar post offices.  And why point proudly to the sale of New York’s James Farley Post Office, one of the grandest in the country?  Isn’t that just symbolic of how far the Postal Service has fallen from its former glory? Anyway, if you’re in the market, there are plenty of post offices for sale.  Maybe yours is one of them.

(Photo credit: James Farley post office; Fred Smith; Westport CT post office for sale, sold recently)  (More photos of the the James Farley, here)

Now we're talking: Iowa calls for a moratorium on closings

June 26, 2011

Day after day, month after month, it’s been nothing but bad news and critical editorials about how much money the Postal Service is losing, why it has to close thousands of post offices, and what Congress—and taxpayers—may need to do to rescue the postal system.  There have also been hundreds of news items about the closing, or impending closure, of so many post offices.  Each one is a sad story about what a loss it will be to the community, the town meeting with postal officials who don’t seem to listen because their decision has already been made, the grief of local citizens who’ve had the post office in their town for a hundred, maybe two hundred years.

Today, finally, an article to raise one’s spirits

“Faced with the potential loss of their local post offices,” reports the Iowa Messenger, “a group of area leaders has decided to go on the offensive.”  Forty government officials, including the governor and many mayors, “gathered in Fort Dodge Saturday and decided to ask Congress for a moratorium on future post office closures.”

Yes!  A moratorium on closures!  It's happened twice in the past, in 1976 and 1998.  It could happen again.

The Iowa group, which has named itself Iowans for Post Office Services, is going to send letters to Congress, the National Governors Association and the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission lobbying for the moratorium.  And there’s more.

The mayor of Randolph, Iowa said citizens in his town have pledged $10,000 to pay for a federal lawsuit against the Postal Service over the potential closing of their post office.  Mayor Vance Trively also suggested that a class action lawsuit should be considered. 

You can sign a petition calling for a moratorium on closing post offices here.  More on the case for a moratorium, here.  

(Photo credit: Luther, Iowa, post office, in Iowa Backroads; meeting of Iowans for Post Office Service)

Talk about wanting to close a lot of post offices

June 25, 2011

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the  chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has introduced a bill, H.R. 2309, to reform the Postal Service. Among other things, it would create a Commission on Postal Reorganization "to review postal infrastructure and recommend closures and consolidations to Congress, that will ultimately save the Postal Service at least $2 billion a year." 

Closing $2 billion worth of post offices?  How many is that, anyway?  Well, that's hard to say but let's try ballbarking it.  In the August 2010 Audit report for its Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation Initiative, the Postal Service found that it spends "about $425,000 per month to maintain operations at 28 of the 144 facilities we randomly selected for review."  That comes to an annual saving of about $180,000 per closure.  At that rate, saving $2 billion a year would require closing 11,000 postal facilities.  But that's probably low-balling it.  Let's add the 2,000 small rural post offices that the Postal Service is already in the process of closing—they don't cost much to operate but most of them run in the red.  So saving $2 billion a year could mean closing at least 13,000 post offices—one in three.  If that seems unlikely, consider that Great Britain closed 8,500 of its 20,000 post offices and they're looking at closing many more.

Issa's legislation would also remove "several legal hurdles that USPS currently faces when it comes to reducing costs, including allowing financially unsustainable retail postal facilities to be closed."  The GAO, the OIG, and the Postal Service have all been advocating a streamlining of the closing process, so no surprise that Issa's legislation would also include efforts to remove those "barriers to retail network optimization" that make it hard to close a post office.

"This legislation encourages USPS to modernize its retail network and enables USPS to act more like a business," Issa said.  That's the mantra: the Postal Service is a business, not a public service.

If anything like this legislation were to become law, that will be all she wrote for the brick-and-mortar post office.

A little dirt on Issa from Wikipedia: His net worth has been estimated at more than $250 million, making him the "richest member of Congress."  A 1998 investigation by the San Francisco Examiner  challenged his claims that as a soldier in the Army he provided security for President Richard Nixon and swept stadiums for bombs prior to games in the 1971 World Series.  He's also been mixed up on several occasions with shenanegans involving insurance fraud and car theft.  Kind of ironic since he made his fortune thanks to car alarm manufacturer Steal Stopper, which he took control of it by foreclosing on a loan he had made to the company when its founder missed a payment.  You can imagine what he has in mind when he says the Postal Service needs to be run "like a business."

(Photo credit: Issa)

"You take it for granted until it's gone"

June 25, 2011

So you need to stop by the post office to mail a package, and you notice there aren’t any cars in the parking lot, and then you discover that the doors are locked and there are a couple of notes taped to the door saying the post office has been closed permanently. “What’s that all about?” you wonder.  “I knew the Postal Service was having financial problems, but it seems like they just closed this post office overnight.”

The post office is the Woods Park Station in Lincoln, Nebraska, and it turns out the Postal Service had its eye on closing it for some time. 

On April 9, 2009, the Postal Service announced that it would be reducing the staff working at Woods Park.  Twenty-eight carriers (9 for ZIP code 68503 and 19 for 68510) were transferred to other post offices, leaving just three clerks to manage the station as a satellite office.  The Journal Star reported that the Postal Service was considering closing the Woods Park station when the lease runs out in 2012.

At around the same time, the Postal Service began a national program to consolidate retail facilities by reviewing 3,600 stations and branches for closure.  It was called the Station and Branch Optimization and Consolidation (SBOC) Initiative.

By July 2009, the Postal Service had narrowed its SBOC review to about 700 stations and branches.  As required by law, the Postal Service requested what’s called an “Advisory Opinion” from the Postal Regulatory Commission “on the national service implication of the proposed closures.”

On July 30, 2009, the Woods Park Station, along with Lincoln’s University Place and State Office Building stations, appeared on a list of 677 stations and branches being considered for closure that was published by the Washington Post.  This lengthy list of post offices got a lot of attention. Over the coming months, public opposition, political pressure, and concern about what the PRC Advisory Opinion would say led the Postal Service to revise the list several times, and it eventually went down to 162.

On August 13, 2009, the Journal Star reported that the Postal Service had already changed its plans for Lincoln.  University Place and State Office had been taken off the table, but the Woods Park was still under consideration for closure. "It's not a done deal," Lincoln Postmaster Kerry Kowalski said.  "It has to go to headquarters for approval, but Woods Park is on the table.”

On March 1, 2011, the final decision to close the post office was announced in a USPS press release that cited the close proximity of other post offices and “the underutilized space”— “Woods Park Station is operated by one postal clerk and one maintenance employee.”

On May 6, 2011, the Woods Park post office had its last day.  The Journal Star reported that the station's neighbors “were sad to see the place go.”

"We use that post office all the time," said Anita Moore, an administrative assistant at a surety bonds company across the street. "Now we have to go to Gateway." Donna Schnell, who works at a dental office catty-corner from the post office, said, "You take it for granted until it's gone."

Merry-go-round at the mall: From post office to kiosk

June 24, 2011

It wasn’t an historic building, it wasn’t even a stand-alone brick-and-mortar post office.  It was just a storefront in a shopping mall.  But the post office in the Carousel Center in Syracuse, New York, had been serving its patrons for over 20 years, and when it closed in April, they felt a real loss. 

In the comments for a news article about the closing, one person called it “a gem in the community,” and several noted how grateful they were that the post office was open in the evenings and on weekends.  “Many people would just go to the mall just to use the post office on the weekends,” someone wrote, “and now it's going away.”  “Nice. The Mall is going to look like a ghost town soon,” commented another. “This is profoundly unfortunate. It was always bustling particularly at holiday time,” wrote a patron. “Closing it is a misguided decision and it will be sorely missed.”

According to Syracuse.com, the Postal Service had been a tenant in Carousel Center since the mall opened in October 1990, but postal officials said an agreement over a new lease could not be reached.  The post office had over 350 box holders.

Syracuse.com reports today that the Carousel Center post office is going to be replaced by a kiosk in the Hallmark store. Customers will be able to buy stamps, weigh and ship packages, but there won't be any post office boxes, and you won't be able to do money orders or passports. Still, it should serve most needs of shoppers and mall employees, postal service spokesperson Maureen Marion said.  "It restores a significant level of postal service to Carousel Center.”

“The idea of putting a mail kiosk inside a business hasn't been tried anywhere in the country before,” reports Syracuse.com “The postal service will be monitoring the success of the Carousel Center location, to see if it can be implemented in other places.”

(Photo credits: Carousel post office; kiosk)

Tearing Down the House: The Selling of the Post Office

June 23, 2011

A few days ago, US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe compared the financial problems of the Postal Service to a fiscal failure abroad. “"Look what's going on in Greece,” he said. “There's nothing safe.”  The comparison between Greece and the Postal Service is apt, but not in the way the Postmaster General probably meant. 

The causes of the Greek mess are complex, but it’s easy to see how the crisis is being exploited.  Today’s New York Times has an article titled “Some Greeks Fear Government Is Selling Nation.”  It’s about how Greece is being forced to adopt an austerity program requiring it to auction off the country’s prime assets in a “fire sale of national patrimony.”  The "crown jewels of Greece’s socialist state” are now likely to go to the highest bidder—the ports, the telephone company, the railway system, and some prime Mediterranean real estate—even the postal system and maybe the Parthenon—all up for sale.  It won’t be long before wealthy investors from Germany and the other big European powers who are pushing austerity “end up purchasing the assets for a hefty discount.”

That’s pretty much what’s going on with our Postal Service.  It finds itself in a financial dilemma—due partly to circumstances beyond its control but also because of its own past decisions—that is now being used to justify a fire sale of some of our country’s great architectural treasures and a vast network of brick-and-mortar post offices.  The Postal Service is basically selling off its assets and privatizing itself.

Thousands of small rural and neighborhood post offices are being closed, and citizens (the Postal Service likes to call them “customers”) are told they should take advantage of one of the 70,000 alternative retail outlets the USPS has developed through partnerships with retailers like supermarkets and Office Depots. It won’t be long before the brick-and-mortar post office is just a memory.

The Postal Service has also been selling off some amazing historic post offices. For many years now, it has been moving its mail processing centers from large downtown post offices to annexes in the suburbs, leaving millions of square feet of prime office space unused.  That’s now being used to justify the sale of beautiful New Deal post offices in Greenwich CT, Westport CT, and Palm Beach FL, and other historic post offices like those in Elizabeth City NC, Joliet IL, and York PA.  Here we are in the middle of a real estate slump, and the buildings are sold cheap, with wealthy developers turning them into high-end clothing stores, real estate offices, and a bag company.

The Postal Service may be getting a quick infusion of cash, but it's a buyer's market. The post office in Wesptort CT was appraised at $3.6 million, but it sold on May 18 for $2.35 million.  The post office in Modesto CA, which must be worth millions, went up for auction in early June, but as of June 15, only one bid had been placed—for the minimum $100,000.  The post office in Palm Beach FL was listed at $5 million but sold for $3.725 million.  The buyer was real estate mogul Jeff Greene, who commented, "“You always want to get a good deal." 

While it's the Postal Service that's selling the post offices, it's we the people who paid to build them and it's we who own them.  Maybe we should be getting a better deal too.

Perhaps someone can explain how the nation could build 1,100 beautiful post offices in the middle of the Great Depression yet can’t afford to maintain its legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices today.  It’s simply madness to destroy these centers of community and to sell off a legacy that’s taken so long to build up.  As an ancient Greek saying goes, “God does not tear down men's homes, he ruins their minds and they tear them down themselves."

(Photo credits: Parthenon; Greenwich p.o., sold; Norwich p.o., coming on the market; York p.o., for sale)

Last day at Pass-a-Grille

June 21, 2011

The post office in Pass-a-Grille, Florida, in operation for almost 106 years, closed on Friday.  The St. Petersburg Times has a beatiful piece by Leonora LaPeter Anton on the post office's last day: "Tearful locals bid farewell to tiny, historic Pass-a-Grille post office."

"It's sad," said Marsha Anderson, who has lived here for 35 years. "It's like a funeral. It's part of our street. Our downtown is going to change."

"It made us a small town," said Amy Loughery, who owns Bamboozle, a clothing store next door to the post office. "It was real."

Photo credit: Postal clerk Dick Weber pausing before locking the door of the post office for the last time Friday afternoon.

A Sense of Place: New Deal Post Office in Fort Worth, For Sale?

June 21, 2011

In the mid-nineteenth century, Fort Worth, Texas, became the center of the cattle drives of the legendary Chisholm Trail, earning it the nickname “Cowtown.” The railroad arrived in 1876, ushering in another boom and a new nickname, “Queen City of the Prairies.”  The cowboys whooped it up in dozens of saloons and bawdy houses, and Forth Worth got itself yet another sobriquet, “The Paris of the Plains.” (Wikipedia)

Downtown Fort Worth is known for its Beaux Arts and Art Deco  architecture.  Among the city’s historic buildings is the 1933 post office.  Unlike most New Deal post offices, which followed standard Treasury Department designs, it was designed by an architect, Wyatt C. Hedrick, who also did the Will Rogers Memorial Center and Amon G. Carter Stadium.

As local historian Quentin McGown told the Star-Telegram (in an excellent article by Bill Hanna), the post office is one of Fort Worth’s iconic buildings, and it exudes “a sense of place.”  “To me, it is the ultimate federal building.” 

The post office prospered from the 1930s through the 1950s, but it went downhill after it was cut off from the rest of downtown by Interstate 30 in 1958. In the 1980s the Federal Highway Commission and Texas DOT proposed widening the I-30 overpass to within 40 feet of the post office façade, which would have meant the end of the post office, but a grassroots fight successfully stopped the project with a federal lawsuit.  The old I-30 was torn down in 2002, reuniting the post office with the downtown, and, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation states, "the city of Fort Worth is now in the midst of a creating a master plan to revitalize the Lancaster Avenue corridor, making into a dynamic, attractive, pedestrian-friendly gateway to downtown."

The future of the post office is unclear—maybe the city will take it over, maybe a developer will convert it to commercial uses, maybe it will be destroyed.  As the Star-Telegram reports, Sam Bolen, a Postal Service spokesman, said the service had no comment about the negotiations with the city or a possible sale of the building.  But it's looking like the US Postal Service will not be a part of this post office's future.

(Photo credits: Exterior; interior; I-30 cutting off post office; postcard; see a slideshow here)

Privatization of the Postal Service: New Litmus Test for Republicans?

June 21, 2011

Is favoring the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service becoming a new litmus test to determine the conservative bona fides of Republican candidates for president?  It’s looking that way.

Speaking at the University of Chicago June 7, presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty specifically mentioned the Postal Service in his list of government agencies that should be turned over to the private sector.

As reported by CNN, Pawlenty suggested encouraging private enterprise through what he called his "Google Test."  Haven’t heard that one before?  It goes like this:

"If you can find a good or service on the internet, then the federal government probably doesn't need to be doing it," Pawlenty said. "The post office, the government printing office, Amtrak, Fannie and Freddie were all built for a time in our country when the private sector did not adequately provide those products. That is no longer the case."

Asked if Pawlenty favors a complete end to government funding for those programs, campaign spokesman Alex Conant said it’s a possibility.  "Yes, he's opening the door to privatizing other programs that are duplicative of services now offered by the private sector," Conant told CNN.  (The reporter asking the question may not have known the government doesn’t fund the Postal Service.)

There’s an excellent response to the idea of privatization by APWU President Cliff Guffey in The Hill’s Congress Blog, June 17, explaining what a “chilling” prospect that is. 

“Turning the entire mail system over to private operators,” writes Guffey, “would mean the end of universal service and uniform rates, leaving the nation’s citizens and business to navigate a confusing patchwork of private delivery services with exorbitant rates and limited service–private delivery operators would only serve communities deemed profitable.”

The question now is, will Pawlenty’s call for privatization of the Postal Service be picked up by other Republican candidates for president?

Already maybe-candidate Rick Perry, in a speech in New Orleans at the Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, said it’s time for states to take over many of the powers and functions currently vested in the federal government.

“Our goal is to displace the entrenched powers in Washington, restore the right balance between state and federal government,” Perry said, adding: “We now live in this strange, inverted version of what our founders intended.”

Maye Perry is inverting what the founders intended.  The U.S. Post Office was created by founding founder Benjamin Franklin, by decree of the Second Continental Congress, July 26, 1755.  Article One of the US Constitution empowers Congress “To establish post offices and post roads.”  I’d give you the link on that, but you can find it using the “Google test.”

(Photo credits: Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940; Pawlenty in Chicago; Perry in New Orleans)

Mass media hypnosis

June 20, 2011

Last week, US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, commenting on his efforts to protect postal jobs, compared the financial problems of the Postal Service to a fiscal failure abroad. “"Look what's going on in Greece,” he said. “There's nothing safe.” 

The doomsday talk just gets shriller.  The Ross committee brings forth witnesses to testify that the Postal Service must make drastic changes or go bust, and a steady stream of articles and editorials prophesy its impending collapse.

Each day brings more sad news of more post offices targeted for closing—some 20 or so each week.  That's on pace to close 2,000 in two years, and it's ten times faster than they've closed post offices over the past 40 years.  Yet the Postal Service wants to streamline the process and close them even faster.

It’s as if the politicians, media, and USPS headquarters were all engaged in an exercise in mass hypnosis.  Its goal—to get everyone believing the country can’t afford its “legacy” of brick-and-mortar post offices.  And when citizens cry and complain that their beloved post office is closing, they’re told, no problem, you can do your postal business online or at the supermarket or Office Depot.

(There’s a list of articles on this website here, a list of post office closings in the news here, and another list of closed and closing post offices over at Postal Reporter, here.)

(Photo credits: Headlines)

"You designed a system to make the post office fail."

June 20, 2011

The post office was established in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, in 1810, when it was one of only 35 in the state.  From 1835 until 1914, it was located in the Jenkins Country Store with members of the Jenkins family succeeding each other as postmasters.  In 1914, it moved to a small building on the grounds of Gwynedd Friends Meeting, a Quaker community, and in 1955 they moved the structure across Route 202 to grounds also belonging to the Friends.  It’s been there ever since.  Until a few weeks ago, that is.

According to Montgomery Media, the Postal Service closed the Gwynedd post office on May 27.  Officially, the Gwynedd post office is a “branch” so the closing process was pretty quick. The timeline is part of the town's legal brief to the PRC, and it goes like this.

On Feb. 15, 2011, the Postal Service announced to Gwynedd residents a proposal to terminate services at this location.  On March 3, a "Save the Post Office" meeting took place, and Postal Service representatives told the 100-plus in attendance that a decision would be made in 30 days.  But it seems as though the Postal Service had already made up its mind, and in less than two weeks (by March 14) it had come to a final decision.  On April 4, residents were informed the post office would close on May 27.  (This letter has more details about the meeting and timeline.)

The citizens of Gwynedd have filed an appeal with the PRC, and a decision is expected at the end of August.  In the meantime, the post office is closed, and postal services have been moved to other post offices.

The explanation for closing the post office was that retail transactions have declined and there’s construction work going on Route 202.  The citizens disagree.  They say the post office was turning a small profit, and that once the construction on 202 is done, access to the post office will be better and safer. 

In fact, the post office in Spring House, which residents are now asked to use, has its own problems.  At a town meeting in March, resident John Parker said, “Have you seen the Spring House post office?  That's a death trap trying to put people into that parking lot."

"It's also been three years of you reducing the hours, reducing the services," resident Kelly Gerald told the Postal Service rep at the meeting. "You designed a system to make the post office fail."

The same could be said for the Postal Service as a whole right now. 

(Photo credit: Gwynedd post offce)

The Culture of Closure in the UK: The Real Cost of Axing Post Offices

June 20, 2011

In the UK, they know all about post office closures.  They’ve been dealing with them for almost 15 years.  As in the US, the British postal system had long been a government department, but in 1969 the UK turned its postal system into a “statutory corporation.”  (One year later President Nixon would sign the Postal Reorganization Act, likewise turning our postal system into an independent agency.)  The British system eventually evolved into Royal Mail, which remains a company owned by the government, even though there’s been a steady push to privatize it.

Privatization is still in the cards, but Royal Mail will need to be seen as profitable before it will find enough investors.  In order to make itself “lean and mean” enough for those investors, they’ve been downsizing the system since 1997. The number of post offices has been reduced from over 20,000 to just 11,500, and it could shrink even further.  As reported in This Is Money, research commissioned by the Communication Workers' Union reveals that “up to 9,300 post offices could close as a result of the Government's sell-off of the Royal Mail.”

The culture of closure in Britain has not been limited to post offices.  It includes police stations, schools, and hospitals.  Writing for the Guardian in March 2008, as 2,500 more post offices were slated for closing, Simon Jenkins described a “closure mania” that was gripping “every corner of Britain’s public service” and doing inestimable harm to the public realm.  “There is no way of measuring the impact on communities of thus ripping out their institutional memories and meeting places,” wrote Jenkins. “It must be savage.”

In Britain, people did not sit idly by as their post offices were closed.  There were demonstrations, you-tube videos, petition drives, Facebook pages, even sexy babes in bikinis, calling on fellow Brits to “save the post office.”  An organization called CAPOC - Communities Against Post Office Closures  was formed to track the closures and help communities fight to keep their post offices open.  The fight goes on, but the damage is impossible to repair.

“The government's Orwellian hostility to the institutional identity of British communities,” concluded Jenkins in that Guardian piece, “can only promote alienation and indiscipline. It turns communities into bleak, car-reliant dormitories, devoid of places of casual association. It removes the informal leadership of the resident teacher, doctor, police officer, shopkeeper. What central government may think it saves in the general, it loses in the particular. It is in the particular that people live.”

(Photo credits, top to bottom: demonstration at top; PetitionsSave Our Post Office.org banner Munira with petitions)

No go in Ohio: Judge wimps out

June 20, 2011

It would have been big.  For only the second time in history, a city took the Postal Service to court to stop it from closing a post office.

Last week, the city of Akron requested  a temporary restraining order to stop the closing of the Goodyear Heights Post Office at the end of the day on Friday.  But on Friday morning, Judge John Adams of the US District Court for Northern Ohio (a Bush appointee in 2003) denied a preliminary injunction, saying he didn't feel he had the authority to make such a ruling.

The closure has been appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission, but its opinion won't be announced until September.  According to Akron News Now, ciity officials have been frustrated in their efforts to get a copy of the Postal Service's study justifying the closure, but the PRC has ordered the Postal Service to share the report so the city can examine its validity.

The first city to go to court to stop a post office closing was in February of this year, when Tuscaloosa, Alabama requested an injunction, to no avail.  The city's brief stated that the Postal Service had classified the East Side postal facility as a "station" instead of a full-fledged "post office," so that it did not, in the Postal Service's opinion, need to follow the extensive, formal review required by law for a closing.  Tuscaloosa argued that the post office was a post office. 

About half of the population in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood is senior citizens, and the nearest post office is four miles away.  A spokesperson for the Postal Service said they were pleased with the judge's decision. 

(Photo credit: Goodyear Heights p.o.)

Mystery in "Love Valley": Emergency Suspension in Liebenthal, KS

June 16, 2011

Liebenthal, Kansas, was founded in 1876 by immigrants from the Ukraine. Named for Liebenthal (“love valley”), Russia, the settlement received a post office on November 28, 1899.

According to the Hays Daily News, this week a sign appeared on the door of the Liebenthal Post Office, telling customers the post office was closed and to pick up their mail in La Crosse.

“The U.S. Postal Service isn't shedding much light into the situation either," says the Daily News.  "We're going to leave it at that," said Postal Inspection Service spokesman Mark Hines, based in St. Paul, Minn. "We're conducting an inquiry into the operations of the Liebenthal community post office operations."

All the USPS would say is that there is an “emergency suspension” of the post office.  “They won't tell us nothing," said local resident Darold Randa. "It's the craziest thing you ever saw. Leave it up to the federal government to do that."

(Photo credit: Liebenthal post office)

"Harbor of Hospitality" may lose historic post office

June 16, 2011

Elizabeth City, North Carolina, was incorporated in 1793.  Wikipedia provides several interesting facts about the place: It’s known as the “Harbor of Hospitality" because of its long history of shipping thanks to its location at the narrowing of the Pasquotank River. The city has been cited as one of "The 100 Best Small Towns in America" by author Norman Crampton. And it hosts the North Carolina Potato Festival, an annual celebration of the potato, one of the region's most important crops.

Elizabeth City has a downtown post office and federal courthouse that was built in 1906. It’s a stone-veneered Renaissance Revival building with handsome classical and floral embellishments in the lobby. 

According to WVEC, this historic post office is slated to close July 22. 

A petition drive has received 3,500 signatures, and citizens are urging their lawmakers in Washington to keep the post office open.  Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-NC 1st District) has written a letter to the U.S. Postmaster, saying the closing would have "serious consequences for about 200 businesses and could create hardship for many elderly residents who could have trouble getting to the branch on Ehringhaus Street."

In a letter to the editor of the Daily Advance, local resident Marjorie A. Berry writes, “I urge everyone to support keeping the Main Street post office open. We have to show the U.S. Postal Service that we are not nameless, voiceless people in some insignificant little town.”

(Photo credits: post office exterior; postcard)

Mystery in "Love Valley": Emergency Suspension in Liebenthal, KS

June 16, 2011

Liebenthal, Kansas, was founded in 1876 by immigrants from the Ukraine. Named for Liebenthal (“love valley”), Russia, the settlement received a post office on November 28, 1899.

According to the Hays Daily News, this week a sign appeared on the door of the Liebenthal Post Office, telling customers the post office was closed and to pick up their mail in La Crosse.

“The U.S. Postal Service isn't shedding much light into the situation either," says the Daily News.  "We're going to leave it at that," said Postal Inspection Service spokesman Mark Hines, based in St. Paul, Minn. "We're conducting an inquiry into the operations of the Liebenthal community post office operations."

All the USPS would say is that there is an “emergency suspension” of the post office.  “They won't tell us nothing," said local resident Darold Randa. "It's the craziest thing you ever saw. Leave it up to the federal government to do that."

(Photo credit: Liebenthal post office)

UPDATE: June 28, 2011: The mystery deepens as the Postal Service announced that it has terminated its contract for the community post office in Liebenthal and will be closing it permanently.  "Contractual irregularities at this facility have made this move necessary," said USPS spokesman Brian Sperry.  When asked by residents for more details, the Postal Service said it was a Human Resources matter, and they don't discuss them. (Hays Daily News)

UPDATE: Hutchnews.com, Aug. 29, 2011: "Amanda L. Casebier, 33, of La Crosse, is charged with misappropriation of U.S. Postal Service funds. The crime is alleged to have occurred from March to June 2011 while she was a postal contract employee at the Community Post Office in Liebenthal in Rush County. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison."

 

How many post offices does the country really need?

June 15, 2011

Dennis Ross, Tea Party congressman from Florida, held another hearing on the post office today.  The question before the committee was “Postal Infrastructure: How Much Can We Afford?"  Given that Ross is no friend of the Postal Service, you can can quess the answer—not much. 

Below is a video of the hearing, and after that, a brief summary and response.

The first panel’s witnesses were Mr. David E. Williams, Vice President of Network Operations Management for the USPS, and Mr. Phillip Herr, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues of the Government Accountability Office.  Herr, you may recall, was the focus of a Bloomberg article about the Postal Service a few weeks ago.  The GAO has been one of the main forces behind the downsizing of the postal serviceAlong with the OIG, it’s been issuing report after report about the need to close post offices and the kinds of changes to the law, regulatory procedures, and postal service administrative policies that would make it faster and easier to close post offices.

The thrust of the questioning from Ross and fellow Republicans, as well as a Democrat or two along the way, was that there are too many post offices and too many processing facilities, and this is one of the main reasons the Postal Service is having financial problems.  No news here.

There were a couple of interesting moments, however.  At one point (it's 28 minutes into the you-tube video),  Congressman Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Massachusettes, asked Herr, "Of the 38,000 post offices in the US today, how many do you think we really need?"  Herr wouldn’t "venture a guess," and instead kicked the question to Williams, who wouldn’t give a specific number either.  Williams said it hinged on the growth of "alternative access" (grocery stores, Office Depot-type outlets, online, etc.).  When there are enough alternatives, then brick-and-mortar post offices won’t be so necessary. 

Given how many post offices run in the red, no wonder that Herr and Williams didn’t want to come up with a specific number.  Imagine if one of them had said that half the post offices should be closed.  That might have actually made the evening news.

Another interesting moment occurred when Grace Napolitano, Democrat from California, gave the witnesses a piece of her mind about a consolidation that had taken place without, in her view, satisfactory notification.  Spurred by complaints from citizens and city council resolutions, she asked the USPS for an explanation and was “given the run around.”  Saying the information she requested was “proprietary,” the USPS sent her a redacted report that she waved to the hearing room—it consisted of nothing but columns of black blocks. Clearly frustrated, she said, “This is not how you treat a member of Congress.”

Home will never be the same

June 15, 2011

The Pony Express is legendary for the daring of its riders and the speed with which it delivered the mail—from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, 1900 miles in 10 days.  Mark Twain was out west during those months, stage coaching across the Prairie, and he saw a “pony-rider” first-hand.  But as he writes in Roughing It, the rider went by so fast, Twain almost missed him: “So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe.”

The days of the Pony Express were brief, just eighteen months, from April 1860 to October 1861.  With the completion of the Pacific Telegraph line, there was no need for the pony riders.  But their romance is part of the legend of the West, and there’s now a stretch of Highway 36 running through Missouri and Kansas that’s been named the Pony Express Highway.

Home, Kansas, is a small town on the Pony Express Highway, population 50. The post office was established February 19, 1874.  The town got its name when some of its citizens were sitting around trying to come up with a name and someone said, “Well, our post office is located in someone’s home, so why don’t we call this place ‘Home’’? 

The post office eventually moved to its own building, but now the Postal Service says it plans to close this small rural post office, after serving the people of Home for 137 years.  As Lauren Seabrook reports for 49 News, “People here believe the saying is true, there's no place like home. But without their post office, they say Home will never be the same.”

Watch the TV news report here.

(Photo credit: "The Last Ride of the Pony Express 1861," by George Martin Ottinger, painted in 1873; Home post office)

The Social Value of the Post Office

June 14, 2011

The Post OfficeIn February of 2010, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization, prepared a white paper commissioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission entitled "A Framework for Considering the Social Value of Postal Services."  Its purpose was to “identify the array of benefits provided by the United States Postal Service—through its mail service and post offices—that contribute to the social value of the post.” 

It’s not a particularly recent study, and its results won’t come as news to those who know and value their local post office.  If you’ve been reading the daily news about post office closings, you know all about why citizens, government officials, and local business people value their post office.  Still, it’s worth reviewing the conclusions of the report, just as a reminder of why it’s so important to preserve brick-and-mortar post offices. 

The report breaks down the benefits of the postal service into eight categories. The study considers the benefits of the postal service as a whole, and in particular to rural customers and vulnerable populations.  Here’s a bullet-point summary of its conclusions with regard just to brick-and-mortar post offices. 

1. Consumer Benefits

  • USPS employees provide information about postal products and services.
  • Mail delivered to P.O. boxes is almost always in by 11:00 am or 11:15 a.m., much earlier than home delivery.
  • Travelers and the homeless can use general delivery to receive mail.
  • Individuals can obtain special services, certified mail, registered mail, delivery confirmation, signature confirmation, and insurance.

2. Business Benefits

  • Post office boxes provide a timely way for small businesses to get mail. Mail arrives at the same time each day.
  • USPS provides stable jobs and has a history of providing employment opportunities to minorities. This stable employment has a ripple effect in communities where these individuals live.
  • Some post offices lease their space, which provides a steady flow of rental income to the community.
  • By helping to generate economic activity for a downtown area, the post office helps maintain property values and commercial activity, which in turn produces tax revenue for local government. These taxes bring benefits to entire community.
  • Post offices bring increased foot traffic for nearby businesses. USPS customers and employees bring business to local shops.
  • Post offices identify the “main street” of the community, and they anchor the retail center. It may be harder to retain or attract other business if post office closes.  Closure signals giving up on community. 

Barriers to Retail Network Optimization

June 14, 2011

Closing a post office can have devastating effects on a community’s economy, culture, and identity.  The Postal Service calls it “network optimization.” 

On June 9, 2011, the USPS Office of Inspector General issued a white paper called “Barriers to Retail Network Optimization.”  The report is a survey of what’s keeping the Postal Service from closing post offices as fast as some, like the senior management of the Postal Service and the OIG, think it should.

While the report is meant to help those who want to close post offices, it's actually very informative for those of us who want to preserve the brick-and-mortar post office.  Here's a summary of the report in case you don't want to wade through the whole thing.

The report begins by noting that only 4,000 retail facilities have closed over the past 40 years, about 100 a year, “but a consensus is finally emerging that the retail network needs modernization.”  Previous studies by the OIG have shown “how location economics and retail best practices can devise an optimized network that aligns retail supply to demand and serves current lifestyles better than the legacy network and at lower cost.”  Translation: It’s time to dismantle the “legacy” of brick-and-mortar post offices built during the 19th and 20th centuries.  We need to start closing post offices, and lots of them.

Unfortunately, the report shows, it’s not so easy to close a post office, and the OIG discusses the main “obstacles standing in the way of retail modernization.”  These include the following:

1. Statutory restrictions: Title 39 is the main body of statutes that governs the postal system.  Title 39 (U.S.C. § 101) restricts closing post offices solely for operating at a deficit. The key passage reads as follows:

The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining. No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services shall be insured to residents of both urban and rural communities.

Title 39 (U.S.C. § 404(d)) spells out the procedures for a closing or consolidation.  It requires community study, public notice, publication of findings, and appeal to the PRC of any proposed closing.

Also, since 1985, every year when the President and Congress develop an appropriation bill, there’s always been a proviso stipulating that none of the appropriated funds “shall be used to consolidate or close small rural and other small post offices.”

Now playing: "Save the Post Office"

June 14, 2011

The East Akron postal station in Goodyear Heights, Akron, Ohio, is due to close this Friday.  The city is seeking a temporary restraining order to bar the U.S. Postal Service from shutting it down.  

According to Ohio.com, the Postal Service announced in April that it was closing the post office to save money.  Since it's officially a "station" rather than a "post office," the Postal Service did not have to go through the long process of study required by law for regular post offices. The Postal Regulatory Commission has challenged the Postal Service on the validity of this distinction, but in the meantime, the Postal Service is consolidating stations, i.e., closing post offices.

The citizens of Goodyear Heights have held a rally, gotten 2000 signatures on a petition, set up a Facebook page, worked with government officials, and filed an appeal with the PRC.  The appeal process is expected to last through September 8.   But that would be almost three months too late, hence the latest step of seeking the restraining order.

According to Fox19, "Akron is only the second city in the country to go to court to try and stop a post office from closing. The first was Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the city lost."  (A pdf of the Tuscaloosa legal complaint is here.)

While "Save the Post Office" is the main feature this week, the co-feature at the Linda, "Legend of the Guardians," is worth seeing too.  It's about a young owl whose peaceful life with his family in the forest is shattered when he is abducted by an evil Owl army.  Only the legendary Guardians can stop the menace. 

(Photo credits: Post office; Movie theater; SOS sign)

Post office closes, Postal Service saves $13 a day

June 14, 2011

The village of Doylesburg, Pennsylvania, was laid out on April 24, 1852 by Philip Thomas Doyle, and two years later he became its first postmaster.  The post office has always been located in a general store, built and operated, in its early days, by another member of the Doyle family.  

Doylesburg General Store owner Georgia O'Donnell has been taking care of the mail in this "community post office" for twenty-one years.  She gets paid $13 a day for her salary and the rental of the space.  She recently asked the Postal Service for a raise, but they turned her down.

USPS regional spokesman Ray Daiutolo told abc27, "Right now, we're losing a lot of money. Anywhere we can cut expenses without impacting customer satisfaction, we have to do it. We have no choice."

After 157 years of serving the people of Doylesburg, the post office will close on June 30.  The whole story is on the abc27 video.

(Photo credit: General store; Georgia O'Donnell)

By the time we got to Rockstock, the post office was closing

June 12, 2011

It's been compared to the "annual hoopla surrounding the uncorking of the famed Beaujolais Nouveau wine in France or the feasting during the sardine run in South Africa." Every year, on the first Saturday of August, thousands of people descend upon the small town of Rockville, Nebraska (pop. 106), for a live music festival called "Rockstock."  It's Nebraska's largest street dance.  And the highlight of the festival?  Lobsters.  Yes, Rockville is "The Lobster Capital of Nebraska." 

It all started back in the mid 1990s, when the Rasmussen brothers, who run a construction company, ordered up a big batch of lobsters for a special celebration.  It's been an annual event ever since.  The festival also features  a cake with the names of everyone in town on it.

The post office in Rockville has been there for 138 years.  According to The Independent, the Postal Service is studying the post office for closure.  Village Board President Harold Jakob, like everyone else in town, doesn't want to see the post office go. "We are basically a rural farming community," he said.  Closing the post office "helps drive a nail in the coffin of your community."

Jakob said he doubted closing a few rural post offices would really save much for the Postal Service.  "The rural post office is not where the problem is," he said. "We are the group of people still using the post office."   Elderly citizens in the town have their prescriptions sent to them at the post office, and the nearest alternate post office is 12 miles away. 

By the way, if you can't make the festival, don't worry.  On any night Tuesday through Sunday, they serve imported Maine lobsters at Jane's Tavern, on Ley Street, just four blocks from the post office.

Photo credits: Post office; lobster sign)

UPDATE: June 21, 2011: Rockville citizens met with Brian Sperry, regional spokesman for USPS, but "It seemed like it was a done deal," said Harold Jakob, Rockville's honorary mayor.  "The biggest point of contention on Monday night was that no numbers were used by USPS," reports NYV-ABC. "Residents wanted to know just how much their office earned and how much it costs to operate, but Sperry said if a proposal to close Rockville is made then and only then will the numbers be released.  Right now, he said everything is premature."

Getting the band back together might not be all that easy, Jake: The Joliet Post Office Blues

June 11, 2011

The post office in downtown Joliet, Illinois, at the corner of Scott and Clinton Streets, was built in 1903.  It was the city’s main post office until 1981, when a new post office opened on the west side.  The building was designed by the federal government’s supervising architect, Taylor James Knox, in the Renaissance Revival Style. It also has an extension built in 1931-32.

The people of Joliet learned this week that the Postal Service is planning to close their post office.  As required by law, the USPS held a meeting to hear comments from the public, but apparently the Postal Service didn’t do a great job notifying local residents about it.  As the Herald-News reports, Mayor Thomas Giarrante learned of the meeting a few hours before it took place. “They didn’t notify anybody,” he said. 

Plus, the meeting was held across town at the West Side post office on McDonough Street.  “We need to at least have a meeting on the East Side with the people who use it,” Giarrante said, adding that one of the problems with closing the facility is that some users don’t drive. “Some of the people (who use the downtown facility) walk to that post office. I don’t know how they expect those people to get to McDonough Street.”

Thomas Mahalik, vice president of marketing for the City Center Partnership that promotes business development downtown, said he learned of the meeting just the day before.   “The thing that got some people upset is the way they disseminated the information,” he said. Besides the surveys put in the postal boxes, others were available “behind the counter,” Mahalik said. “You almost had to ask for them in order to do the survey.”

The Scott street post office is on the National Register of Historic Places.  As the application for historic designation states, “Throughout the years, this building has funtioned as a provider of a necessary public service, a symbol of growth, a source of community pride and a distinctive architectural creation which has survived the passage of time and retained its basic architectural integrity.  The Joliet Post Office is a physical link that connects present-day Joliet to the past history and development of this community.  As such, this building is an important landmark and a valuable resource to the people of Joliet.”  (More on the history of the building, here and here.)

The Veterans Memorial in Joliet's Bicentennial Park contains a large mosaic (1992) depicting many of the city's landmarks, including the post office.

Joliet, Wikipedia informs us, was the home of a prison from 1858 to 2002, featured in songs by Memphis Minnie and Bob Dylan.  The 1980 film
"The Blues Brothers" has scenes shot in Joliet, and John Belushi's character has just been released from the prison, hence his nickname, Joliet Jake Blues.  

Given the problems of notification with the public meeting, civic leaders are trying to persuade the Postal Service to hold another meeting.  But the Postal Service has not agreed to it, and instead extended the comment period a couple of weeks.

(Photo credits: Post office exterior; postcard; mosaic)

The Old Days of Greenwich, and the New

June 11, 2011

The federal government has a long history, going back to the early nineteenth-century, of constructing buildings intended to symbolize the power, stability, and prosperity of the nation and its government.  Court houses, custom houses, and post offices were designed in the latest styles and using the best technology, and they were supposed to be monumental and grand to inspire confidence in the federal government. In the first decades of the twentieth century, these buildings were done in the neo-classical style, calling to mind the great democracies of Greece and Rome.  As an historian of federal architecture writes, the classical style of federal architecture ““bespoke the power, influence, and self assurance of a nation on the brink of world leadership.”

Among the federal buildings constructed at this time was the post office in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Built in 1916, it features a concave façade facing the triangular Memorial Plaza Park.  This unique adaptation to the site and other architectural features, like a recessed portico and foliated capitals on the columns, put the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and it’s included in the Greenwich Avenue Historic District.

The Postal Service moved most of the sorting work from this site years ago to a facility on the outskirts of town, which turned the downtown post office into a small branch operation.  As reported in the Greenwich Time, in April of 2009, the USPS announced it was putting the building up for sale. 

Greenwich Patch reports this week that a buyer has been found—real estate mogul Peter Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building.  And it looks like the old post office is going to be refitted as a clothing store. Local offices say it will be rented by the high-end retailer Bergdorf Goodman.

In the meantime, the USPS has reassured residents that they’re not losing a downtown post office completely.  It will be moving to a new location about a half mile away: a former pet supply storefront.

The post office has a New Deal mural in the lobby entitled "Old Days of Greenwich," painted in 1939 by Victoria Hutson Huntley.  It depicts Dutch fur traders and pilgrim farmers leaving the dock after loading a ship bound for New York with furs and potatoes. 

As Greenwich Time reports, residents have expressed concern about the fate of the mural.  USPS spokesperson Maureen Marion said it could be left in the building if the new owners agree to preserve it, or it could be moved to another location.

"Depending on what the next use of the building is may also dictate how that mural will be handled," Marion said. "This is one of our treasures, and we do try to take good care of them all." 

Photo credits: Post office exterior, pet supply, mural,

The Words Are Hard To Find: Historic Post Office in York, PA—For Sale

June 9, 2011

York, Pennsylvania, was settled by the English in 1741. During the Revolutionary War, it served as the temporary capital of the Continental Congress, and the Articles of Confederation were drafted there, so York likes to think of itself as the first Capital of the United States. The city has been called an architectural museum because the downtown features so many well-preserved historic structures. Among them is a grand post office built in 1912. 

As In York reports, most of the administrative and mail handling jobs were moved to other locations about 20 years ago, and three years ago, carriers were sent to work out of an annex in West York.  All that’s left is a 10-employee retail operation, which requires only about 5,000 square feet, Postmaster Mike Becker said. 

Two New Deal sculptures have also been moved to another site in anticipation of the closing of the post office.  These large walnut statues, mounted on marble bases, used to tower over the building’s entryway. The Federal Works Agency in 1941 held a national competition that produced them for the post office, and the winners were George Kratina and Carl Schmitz, both of New York. Their sculptures were variations on the theme of Thanksgiving because the first first national Thanksgiving proclamation was made by the Continental Congress in York.  Kratina sculpted "Singing Thanksgiving," a statue of a father and daughter singing, and Schmitz did a farmer bowing his head in thanksgiving.  Video here.)

Postal Service officials have been planning to sell the building since 2005, and it’s now for sale.  The post office will probably move to a smaller location, hopefully nearby.  Fox reports on the story:

 

Among York’s native sons and daughters is  Martie Maguire, member of the country band Dixie Chicks, whose song “Ssh-It’s a Secret” contains these lyrics:

Can Tell There's Something You Don't Wanna Tell Me
It's Killing You 'Cause The Words Are Hard To Find
I Know You Want To Break It To Me Gently
Well Sweet Baby Say What's On Your Mind . . .

So If You're Gonna Say Goodbye, Don't Take All Day And Night
Let 'Er Rip, Let It Fly

Photo credit: Post card; Exterior; Statue)

Lyrics credit: Dixie Chicks, “Ssh—It’s a Secret

Moratorium Time

June 9, 2011

Maybe it’s time for a moratorium on post office closures, consolidations, and suspensions.  The Postal Service seems to be closing post offices as fast as it can, and communities barely have time to react.  Many have had a post office for over a hundred years, yet they’re given just 60 days to respond to a closure notice.  With emergency suspensions, the study for discontuance takes place after the post office has closed, often with just 24 hours notice.  And when communities protest at public meetings, representatives of the Postal Service don’t seem to listen.  It’s as if the decision has already been made—and it probably has been.  An Advisory Opinion issued by the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2009 said, " the Commission finds that the Postal Service should improve customers' opportunity to offer input. . .  [P]ublic comments often are not sought until after the initial decision to close the facility has already been made."

In its rush to close post offices, the Postal Service is engaging in dubious practices, and the agency responsible for overseeing it, the Postal Regulatory Commission, is investigating accusations that the Postal Service is violating the law.  The Postal Service has shuttered many post offices as  “emergency suspensions” because the lease has terminated, but it often seems this “emergency” could easily have been avoided.  The PRC has filed a formal notice entitled "Investigation of Suspended Post Offices," which questions whether the Postal Service has been suspending post offices without making sufficient effort  to reopen or formally close them.  The chairman of the PRC has testified before Congress about problems with the way the Postal Service is closing post offices. The National Association of Postmasters (NAPUS) has filed a formal complaint with the PRC that the Postal Service is not following the law in its practices concerning closures and consolidations as well, and

We’ve heard plenty about how the Postal Service is running a huge deficit and how it has to close post offices to cut costs.  Some have said the Postal Service should be “blown up” and privatized.  But it is not supposed to matter that some community post offices operate at a financial deficit: those that run in the black are supposed to subsidize those that run in the red. That’s what makes the Postal Service different from a Starbucks or a Gap.  If they have a store that’s losing money, they close it.  But “universal service” means that everyone is supposed to have access to a community post office, without regard for whether it’s profitable or not.

We need a much more thoughtful national discussion about the meaning of universal service and the financial issues facing the Postal Service.  And while we’re having that conversation, the Postal Service should stop closing post offices.  It’s time for a moratorium on closings.  Don’t think it’s possible?

There’s nothing radical about moratoriums on closures.  There have been two moratoriums on post office closings since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970.

In 1975, a GAO report recommending the closure and consolidation of 12,000 rural post offices led to a "storm of reaction," Congressional hearings, and the passage of the Postal Reorganization Act Amendments.  The Act established a commission to study the postal service and imposed a moratorium on closing or consolidating any post office until the commission published its findings.  That moratorium was in effect from September 1976 until March 1977.

In 1998, under congressional pressure, the Postmaster General declared a moratorium on closures and consolidations, and it was in place until 2003.  As a recent report by the Office of Inspector General explains, the reason for this self-imposed moratorium was "suspicion in Congress that the Postal Service was manipulating the emergency suspension procedure," which was the subject of a 1999 congressional hearing. 

In Canada, there’s been a moratorium on closing rural post offices since 1994.  Like the U.S., Canada is facing similar pressures to privatize the postal system, and a 2009 advisory panel “recommended that the current moratorium on post office closures in rural and small towns be replaced with new rules and procedures, including the ability to replace public post offices with private outlets.”  But in the meantime, the moratorium is protecting 3800 public post offices in rural andsmall one-post-office towns.

It’s Congress that is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the postal system provide “universal service.”  When the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 transformed the postal system from a government service into a corporate-type independent agency, Congress wanted to ensure that the postal system continued to provide effective postal services to residents of both urban and rural communities. In 1996 Congress amended the Act and established specific requirements for closing a post office to ensure that the USPS consider the effects on the community as well as providing and involving communities in the decision, thus ensuring that closure decisions were made in a fair, consistent manner.  While the nation debates the future of the postal system, it only makes sense that the USPS put a moratorium, as it did back in 1998, on closing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of post offices.

(Photo credits: top to bottom: St Pete Beach Todaymlive.com; Cleveland.com; Oakland Press; WataugaDemocrat.com)

Postal worker slips on ice in North Dakota, post office closes

June 9, 2011

In early December, the postal worker running the post office in the small town of Douglas, North Dakota, slipped on the ice, injuring his leg and knee, and the post office was put under an "emergency suspension" for eight weeks.  As reported in the Minot Daily News, on May 25,  a meeting was held in Douglas to brief postal customers about  the possibility of a permanent "discontinuance" of the post office.   USPS representataive Pete Nowacki said that the option of discontinuance may have occurred on its own anyway, and wasn't necessarily caused by the postal worker's injury-related sabbatical.

Residents will not only have to go 13 miles to the nearest post office, they're also worried about community identity.  "We need to keep this post office open or this poor town will die a little more," said resident Sylvia Gehring. "The town doesn't want to die."

(Photo credit: Google maps)

Not closed, but not open: An emergency suspension in Beallsville, Maryland

June 9, 2011

The post office in Beallsville, Maryland, was shuttered for an "emergency suspension" in August of last year because the landlord wanted to raise the rent. 

According to the Gazette.Net, on Tuesday, May 7, a meeting was held with local residents and Postal Service representatives to discuss making the suspension a permanent closure. 

Turns out the closing was caused by a misunderstanding.  Beallsville resident Eric Cronquist showed a letter from the landlord dated July 8, 2010, stating that the post office could stay at the same rent of $12,600 a year.  But Donalda Moss, post office closing coordinator, said that by then the plans for closing the office were already in place and could not be stopped. 

"The post office is not closed,”  Moss told residents.  “Right now the post office is in an emergency.”

(For more on "emergency suspensions" and the investigation into using lease issues to close post offices, check out this previous post.)

(Photo credit: Gazette.Net)

Investigating the Emergency Suspensions

June 7, 2011

Although an "emergency suspension" is supposed to close a post office temporarily, just until the circumstances can be corrected, once a post is suspended, it rarely opens again.  Back in 1997, a General Accounting Office study found that of the 651 post offices that had been suspended over the previous five years, only 31 had re-opened. 

Some people think that the post offices currently being suspended will also never re-open, and that the Postal Service is purposely manipulating situations to create “emergencies” justifying suspensions.  There's reason to think so.

In 2009, the post office in Hacker Valley, West Virginia, was suspended when the lease expired.  But according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the Postal Service knew three years earlier that the lease would not be renewed and it failed to secure a new location.  Town residents and a lumber company even offered to  build a new post office for the USPS to lease, using donated land, materials and labor.  As NPR reported, "At first, it seemed the Postal Service was interested, but soon the phone calls from Hacker Valley were going unreturned."  The town appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which issued a determination sharply criticizing the USPS for the way the suspension was conducted.   The PRC also found, based upon the USPS suspension track record, "history strongly suggests that the Postal Service is using its suspension authority to avoid the explicit Congressional instructions to hear and consider the concerns of patrons before closing post offices.”

The Postal Regulatory Commission is currently near completion of a broader investigation into the matter of "emergency suspensions."  As the Wall Street Journal reported in January, the PRC is investigating “whether the postal service has been improperly using reasons such as lease expirations to suspend service and to close many small, rural post offices.”  The PRC has been reviewing more than 400 post offices where service was suspended in recent years to determine whether the suspensions were in fact illegal “de facto closings.” PRC spokesman Norman Scherstrom noted that in many cases, the Postal Service declared emergency suspensions based on expiring leases, and the post offices never reopened.  “A lease generally has a contract and a date where you can expect it will end," said Scherstrom.  "For that to turn into an emergency seems odd."  According to the WSJ, "The postal service has denied wrongdoing."

In March USPS tried to stop the PRC from releasing a list of suspended post offices it had produced at the PRC's request.  It contained 356 offices and branches, 45 of which were suspended in 2010, and 97 of which were suspended for lease problems.  Despite USPS's argument that the releasing it would cause confusion and "unnecessary concern," the list was made public. 

The PRC investigation is on-going and the results should be known soon.  In the meantime, many continue to wonder, is the Postal Service manufacturing emergencies and closing post offices without due process?

(Photo credit: Hacker Valley po)

Moving toward Privatization

May 7, 2011

The Action Plan report discussed in the previous post was produced by the USPS with the support of three consultants — Accenture, The Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey & Company.   McKiney did the survey on consumer attitude toward closing post offices that showed 80% of consumers would not be bothered if their post office closed and postal services were available in a nearby supermarket or other retail outlet.

McKinsey & Company is a well-known global management consulting firm, highly respected in many circles, though not without its problems and critics.  According to Wikipedia, Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling is an alum of McKinsey, Swissair entered bankruptcy after following recommendations from McKinsey, AT&T was told by McKinsey in 1980 that cellphones would be a niche market, and McKinsey has been named as a defendant in Hurricane Katrina litigation (Lousiana governor Bobby Jindal worked for McKinsey after graduating college).

McKinsey was hired by Japan and India when their postal systems considered privatization, and the company may have been hired by the USPS to help move the American postal system toward privatization.  The McKinsey website says the following: "In addition to new technologies and systems, globalization, deregulation, and privatization have been the key drivers of change in the postal and express worlds over the past two decades.  Numerous postal companies have successfully navigated the path from state monopolies to privatization and have become listed companies. Others are poised to begin this journey.  The challenges are huge. . . .  We support our clients as they position themselves to meet regulatory requirements and accompany them on the road to successful privatization."

In reaching out to McKinsey as a consultant, the USPS had to knew what it was getting, and it should come as no surprise that McKinsey has made many cost-saving recommendations to the USPS, including closing post offices.

The Action Plan, “Ensuring a Viable Post Service for America: An Action Plan for the Future," reiterates many of the McKinsey recommendations, such as expanding retail options through kiosks and retail partners, cutting Saturday delivery, and "aligning pricing with economic realities."  The report concludes with an Appendix summarizing additional concepts considered but "not currently being pursued," such as delivering the mail to a centralized "cluster box" instead of to the door.  The final consideration is "Moving Toward Privatization."

The report acknowledges that privatization "would be a dramatic change measure requiring sweeping changes."  It would mean lost economies of scale, government subsidies to ensure universal service, higher fees for higher-cost areas, etc.  "Perhaps more importantly," the report concludes, "there is the question of whether the Postal Service could find investors and equity if privatized, given that it has negative equity, operates in a declining industry, and is burdened with significant outstanding liabilities.  Therefore, all the changes laid out here would be needed before privatization."

All this raises an important question: Is the Postal Service cutting its workforce and closing post offices in order to make it a more attractive investment for the private sector?  In other words, is the Postal simply paving the way for privatization?

(For more, see the papers presented at the conference, Envisioning America’s Future Postal Service, in March 2010.)

Photo credits: Kiosk; book cover: The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus, by The Economist editor-in-chief John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, which (according to wikipedia) "presents a series of blunders and disasters alleged to have been McKinsey's consultants' fault."

Post Office Obit: The End of Brick-and-Mortar Post Offices

June 7, 2011

The Postal Service has begun the process of closing 2,000 post offices, and it has its eye on "discontinuing" and "consolidating" as many as half of its 32,000 offices because they’re operating in the red.  Don’t think it won’t happen.  The Postal Service has already started moving into alternative "retail outlets," and it’s been boasting that that there are now 100,000 places to buy stamps or ship a package.  “It’s not about brick-and-mortar Post Offices anymore, as postal products move online and into retail outlets, grocery stores, office supply chains and pharmacies,” says a May 19, 2011 USPS press release.

The plan is all spelled out in many Postal Service publications, like “Ensuring a Viable Post Service for America: An Action Plan for the Future” (2010).  In this report, the USPS states that according to a consumer survey in December 2009, “almost 80% of consumers report they would benefit or easily adapt if Post Office services more moved to a nearby retail store.”

And that’s exactly what the report recommends: “As consumer behaviors and needs change, so must the Postal Service.  It must better align its retail network and the access it provides, investing in new options that improve service while lowering costs.  Access will be expanded by serving customers where they already shop, creating more automated and on-demand services such as stand-alone kiosks and additional partnerships with retailers.  The Postal Service will expand options available on its website and through its carriers, which provide access to most postal services without customers leaving their home or office.”

While the USPS report indicates that four out of five people wouldn’t care if their post office closed, one wonders how those people will feel when they actually see a closure notice on the wall in their “redundant” post office telling them they have 60 days to comment.  Will a kiosk at the supermarket really replace what they’re losing?

(For more, see the papers presented at the conference, Envisioning America’s Future Postal Service, in March 2010.)

(Photo credit: kiosk)

Trying to stay calm and collected in Plover

June 5, 2011

Plover, Iowa, sits in Powhattan Township, which was first settled in 1864. The township name honors the father of Pocahontas.  Plover got its first post office in the early 1870s.  A meeting is set for June 8 to talk with a USPS representative about closing the post office. 

As reported in The Messenger, one town resident is fighting to keep her post office.  Darla Johnson's father was postmaster in Plover for 20 years, and she spent much of her childhood at the post office.  "So it's almost like home," Johnson said. "I'm upset about that, but there again, there's probably nothing I can do." 

Johnson is writing letters to lawmakers and organizing a petition drive, but she's not optimistic about the meeting—she thinks it's just for appearances.  "The community right now is feeling a little bit overwhelmed because we don't have any answers," Johnson said. "We're not very happy about the whole situation. Other than that, we're trying to stay somewhat calm and collected."

For more on post office closings in Iowa, check out this excellent story by Kyle Muson in the DesMoines Register, along with this great gallery of photos.  It's enough to make you weep.

Pictured to the right, the post office in Thayer, Iowa, population 59, postal service established Feb. 19, 1869.

(Photo credit: Plover p.o.; Luther p.o.)

People are pretty upset in Freedom, WY

June 5, 2011

Freedom is a small hamlet in Wyoming, population 214.  It sits on the stateline with Idaho, and, according to Wikipedia, "the community was settled as a border town by Mormon polygamists in order to escape arrest for polygamy: they could be free from Idaho police simply by walking into Wyoming. The community was named for the freedom it gave these early settlers."  Today Freedom is the home of Freedom Arms, a firearms manufacturer known for producing powerful handguns.

Freedom is the oldest community in Wyoming's Star Valley, and some of the its old buildings still stand.  One of them is the post office.  The hamlet has been notified that it's on the list, along with four others, of post offices being studied for closure.  They had a town meeting on Thursday, and the Officer in Charge manning the post office said, "People are pretty upset about it."

One of the other towns on the closure list is Bairoil, population 97, named after sheep rancher Charles M. Bair, the first to drill oil in this area and after whom the town is named. The post office was established in 1924.  The nearest post office is 45 miles away.

(Photo credit: Freedom p.o.; Bairoil p.o.)

Sorting through the Closings

June 4, 2011

The past week has seen many more closing announcements.  Here are a few of the stories in the news:

KWTX TV reports that more than 70 residents of the town of Leroy, Texas, turned out for a meeting to support their post office.  They signed petitions and were encouraged to write letters to their lawmakers.  “If the post office closes, a centrally located box known as a Neighborhood Delivery Box and Collection Unit or NDCBU will be installed.”  Several other rural post offices in central Texas —Purmela, Prairie Hill, Reagan and Avalon—are also on the closure list.

News Channel 34 in Binghamton, New York, reports that “residents and city officials are making a last ditch effort to convince the US Postal Service not to close 3 neighborhood post offices in the city.”  That would leave only the downtown office open.  City Council Member Teri Rennia says the West Side has a higher population of elderly and low-income residents who have a difficult time getting downtown.  "A walkable community is incredibly important for environmental reasons, for economic reasons and also to make sure folks who don't have access to transportation still have equal access to these basic services."  Watch the video.

NV Daily reports that the town of Star Tannery, Virginia, had a community meeting to tell USPS officials that it was wrong to close their post office.  More than 65 people attended, and they’ve started a letter writing campaign to their lawmakers.  The sixty-day comment periods ends June 20.  The nearest post office is 11 miles away.  Local politician Dennis Morris attended the meeting: “"It's convenience and it's tradition," he said. "They want to keep their identity back there."

Eleven New Mexico post offices are on the chopping block, reports KRQE News 13. "This may sound old fashioned and silly,” said Shelley Rains, a resident of the town of Holman, NM, in the northeastern part of the state. “We’re a community, and a community always has a post office. It’s a center.”  The other communities that might lose their post offices are Capulin, Cuervo, Coyote, Encino, Gladstone, La Loma, Saint Vrain, Trementina, Mills, and Fort Stanton. “Maybe our opinions, our enthusiasm, our need will make a difference,” Rains said. “Maybe it won’t. But if you do not fight, you can never win.”  (Watch the video, and check out the Save Our Post Office website Holman citizens have put together.)

The post office in downtown Canton, Georgia, will close, reports the Cherokee Tribune.
“Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood lamented the news. . . .  Retaining the post office’s presence downtown, he said, is ‘vital’ to the city’s efforts to reenergize the central business district.”

The City Council in Waterville, Ohio, unanimously approved a resolution requesting the U.S. Postal Service to maintain a full service post office in the city, reports the Toledo Blade. Two weeks ago the postal service said a temporary emergency suspension would close the city's post office and operations would be shifted to the Maumee Post Office. The postal service was unable to reach a lease agreement with the owner of the building on South Third Street in the community's downtown business district, where the post office has been housed for fifty years. Mayor Derek Merrin said that a lease had been signed, so the closing has been averted, at least for now.

(Photo credits: Star Tannery p.o.; Binghamton p.o.; Leroy p.o.; Holman p.o.; Canton p.o.; Waterville, p.o.)

Manufacturing Emergency: Stories of Post Office Suspensions

June 2, 2011

It can take months for the USPS to go through the bureaucratic process of closing a post office, but under the law's provision for an "emergency suspension," the USPS can shutter a post office in as little as 24 hours.  According to the Postal Operations Manual (download pdf), these suspensions are supposed to be temporary closings for unusual circumstances—a natural disaster, a lease termination when other suitable quarters are not available, lack of qualified personnel to run the post office, a severe health or safety hazard in the work environment, and severe damage to the postal building.  If past history is any indication, a post office closed for an emergency suspension will probably never re-open.  Here are a few of the stories in the news.

In Nooksack, Washington, the post office was closed for retail business on Friday, May 27, and p.o. boxes moved to another post office over the Memorial Day weekend.  According to the The Bellangham Herald, Postal Service spokeman Ernie Swanson explained that this was an “emergency suspension” because the lease for the building was up at the end of May.  The Postal Service will gather input from citizens through mid-July, and “officials in Seattle will make a recommendation to Postal Service headquarters on whether to renew the lease on the building or keep the location closed.” 

In Calumet, Pennsylvania, on May 31, residents were given 48 hours notice that the Postal Service was closing the post office as an “emergency suspension” because of “unspecified building problems that could jeopardize the safety of employees,” reports Trib Live.  The owner of the building is the Calumet Volunteer Fire Department. Residents will need to change their addresses and seek boxes at other post offices or install mailboxes at their homes.

On Monday, May 9, residents of Coatsburg, Illinois, were given 24-hours notice that their post office was closing because of a “lack of qualified personnel to operate this office.”  According to the Quincy News, the post office was being operated by an Officer in Charge rather than a regular postmaster, and this person took another job on short notice. Valerie Welsch, spokesperson with the Postal Service, explained, “We couldn’t give a huge notice because we just didn’t have anyone to fill in there, it is an emergency suspension of services.”  The Coatsburg post office was already on the closure list announced earlier in the spring, and public hearings had taken place. “This emergency suspension had nothing to do with that study,” said Welsch.

In Caledonia, New York, near Buffalo, representatives of the Postal Service met last week with residents to discuss the “emergency suspension” of their post office that took back in November 2010 when the USPS was unable to secure a renewal of the lease.  As reported in the Livingston County News, people aren't buying the lease story. They pointed to several vacant buildings in the business district and asked if the USPS had considered them.  The mayor of the town produced an email letter from the owner of the building stating that he tried to negotiate an equitable agreement with the USPS and that his company even offered to lower the rent in an effort to keep the post office in the property.  

The post office in Tariffville, Connecticut, was closed back in January for an emergency suspension because of concerns about the structural integrity of the building after heavy snowfall forced an evacuation.  The building has housed the post office for more than fifty years (photo at the top).  As the Simsbury Patch reported, shortly after the suspension, the company that manages the building said that the problems had been repaired and the post office should be open for business “tomorrow”—that was over four months ago.  Citizens complained to the Postal Service that the building was declared safe after just two days and other tenants returned, but the USPS had "quickly removed the PO boxes and office equipment instead of returning."  A study is now underway to determine whether or not the post office should be "continued."

(Photo credits: Tariffville p.o. (at the top); Noosak p.o.; Coatsburg p.o.; Caledonia p.o.)

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