February 2012

The Clock Nears Twelve: The Approach of Postal Doomsday

February 28, 2012


"These men combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil doings.  I regard this contest as one that will determine who shall rule this free country — the people through their chosen representatives, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization."  — Theodore Roosevelt

IN 1947 A NUMBER OF NUCLEAR SCIENTISTS got together and unveiled a public relations device known as the Doomsday Clock.  It was a symbolic clock face, and the nearer the hands came to midnight, the closer we were coming to nuclear disaster.  The clock was initially set at 11:53, and over the years the hands have been moved, sometimes nearer to 12:00, sometimes backing away, in response to the world’s geopolitical situation.

If such a clock existed to represent the fate of the United States Postal Service, the second hand would be finishing its last few clicks before the clock chimed midnight and disaster struck.  The actions of Postmaster General Donahoe and the USPS Board of Governors have methodically ensured that we would be reaching this moment with an ever-increasing sense of eventuality.

Over the past few years the leadership of the Postal Service has offered numerous predictions regarding the financial status of the organization, each more dire than the previous.  Usually the predictions have been accompanied by a set of Draconian prescriptions intended to “save” the patient.

It has become a predictable exercise.  The PMG announces another huge loss and anticipates even greater losses down the road, and then he claims he must be given the power to radically alter the nature of postal services so that he can pursue a more successful business model.

At each juncture, when the public or politicians have questioned Mr. Donahoe’s plan, he has responded with new, even more dire predictions and even more radical solutions.  He has been goaded on by two Republican Congressman, Darryl Issa and Dennis Ross.  Like villains in an old B-movie, they have licked their chops and curled their mustaches at the prospect of the destruction of several hundred thousand public-service, good-paying, union jobs.

Playing foils to Issa and Ross are Senators Susan Collins and Tom Carper.  They fill the role of the “responsible” parties because they have shepherded previous legislation through the sausage grinder, legislation that has turned out be about as useful as Neville Chamberlain’s claim to have achieved “Peace in our time.”  The PAEA that they designed can take much of the credit for the huge deficit the Postal Service now unnecessarily faces.

The various associations of business mailers have chimed in as a cheering section.  They view the Postal Service as their personal lapdog, and they act as though the sole purpose of the postal system is to provide them with low rates and guarantee their profits.

Sadly, the mechanisms that are designed to provide oversight and regulation of the Postal Service have no real teeth.  The management structure of the Postal Service, from the BOG down through the executive corps, faces nothing that would ensure real accountability.  They do as they please. 


AT THIS POINT I AM CONVINCED that in a very real sense Mr. Donahoe has won. Regardless of what political or legislative actions may take place over the coming weeks and months, Mr. Donahoe has already done so much damage to the image and brand of the Postal Service, it will be impossible to undo it.  He has so thoroughly undermined the organization’s morale and so completely polluted the dialogue with misrepresentations and visions of doom, that it would be nearly impossible to get the stink of a rotting corpse off the Postal Service.

Congress, for its part, will not be able to act swiftly or forcefully enough to prevent at least a significant part of Mr. Donahoe’s agenda from being implemented.  No Capraesque miracle is going to stop the PMG and save the post office.  There's no Jimmy Stewart or Gary available for a heroic climax.

Vermonters tell it like it is: The public meeting on the White River processing center

February 28, 2012

The USPS is looking at closing the White River Junction, VT Processing and and Distribution Center, which would result in the loss of hundreds of jobs for the area. In addition, the changes would deteriorate the delivery service for people all across the area. At the public hearing in White River Junction, members of the community spoke about the importance of the Post Office as a public good, and expressed their support for postal workers. For more information, go to savewhiteriverpdc.blogspot.com. This video was produced by the media committee of the Vermont Workers' Center: www.workerscenter.org/media

It hits the fan: The Postal Service can't wait to close the plants

February 23, 2012

The Postal Service has announced its decisions on the mail processing plants it's been studying for consolidation.  The APWU has the list of which plants are closing and which will remain open here.   

The list shows 264 plants that were being studied.  The Postal Service determined that 223 could be consolidated, entirely or in part (a few workers might remain).  Some 35 were disapproved for consolidation and will remain open; another six are still under study.

The Postal Service says 40 of the facilities slated for closure did not even go through an AMP study process because they were annexes or mail processing operations within "customer service facilties," which can be closed without a study.  While no public meeting is required for these plants, the Postal Service is inviting customers to provide feedback.  There's more information on the USPS FAQ page.

(If you have more information, like when you've heard a plant might close or the reasons for the decision, please hit the contact link at the top and send a note.)

The closings could begin as soon as May 19, a few days after the moratorium ends on May 15.  It’s going to be a very stressful week, to say the least, and the Washington Post tells us that the Postal Service is increasing security at the plants.  (It's good to know that the consolidation plan is already generating extra work for some sectors of the workforce.)

There are about 150,000 workers in the network of processing plants, and over half of them may be affected by the closings.  As many as 35,000 positions will eventually be eliminated by the consolidation plan, mostly through “attrition” — workers quitting or retiring because they can’t move the family or don’t want to make a long commute (like 50 miles — or more).  The USPS FAQ sheet says about 30,000 will be career employees, and the other 5,000 will be non-career posittions.

The Postal Service isn’t waiting to hear what the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) has to say about the Network Rationalization plan.  The PRC’s Advisory Opinion is due out in late summer, probably August or September, but the Postal Service plans to get started on the consolidations as early as May. 

It’s disconcerting that the Postal Service is in such a rush to begin closing the plants, especially considering that it has only itself to blame for when the Advisory Opinion will be ready.  The Postal Service could have submitted the Request for an Opinion four months earlier. 

In August, the Postal Service was already briefing “outside parties” (like industry stakeholders) about the plan, and as of late September, it intended to submit the Request in October.  But for some unknown reason, the Request was not submitted until December 5.  Perhaps one day we will learn the cause for that delay.

When the PRC announced its Procedural Schedule indicating that the Opinion wouldn’t be done until around August, the Postal Service filed a request to accelerate the schedule.  The PRC turned down that motion because moving too quickly would endanger due process.

In the reply to the Postal Service’s motion to speed things up, the Public Representative noted that the Postal Service itself had delayed submitting the request.  “The Postal Service’s need for the Commission to abandon prudence and hastily issue an advisory opinion is not, however, supported by the Postal Service’s actions.  The Postal Service notes that it briefed outside parties on August 9, 2011 about the network rationalization.  Likewise the Postal Service has produced documents in discovery demonstrating that it intended, as late as September of 2011, to submit an advisory opinion request to the Commission in October of 2011.  However, the Postal Service did not file its request until December 5, 2011.”

It’s not clear why the Postal Service is now in such a hurry and why it wants to close so many plants in such a short time.  It’s a sure formula for chaos in the mail system, and delays in delivering the mail will be inevitable, probably much worse than the change in service standards for First-Class mail that's already part of the plan.

Perhaps the Postal Service wants to increase pressure on Congress to pass legislation, perhaps management really believes its own hype about how dire the situation is, or perhaps they just want to amp up the sense of emergency to help further their agenda.

Whatever the reason, the Postal Service is basically thumbing its nose at the PRC and saying it doesn’t really care what the Advisory Opinion says.  Many of the plants will be closed before the Opinion even comes out. 

The PRC is the nation’s regulatory agency for the Postal Service, and it’s supposed to be ensuring that the Postal Service is in compliance with the law.  The Postal Service is essentially saying it doesn’t care about the law.  Let’s hope some of our legislators in Washington have a greater respect for the laws they make.  

A Civil Action: The People of the United States vs. The U.S. Postal Service

February 21, 2012

The Postal Service juggernaut keeps rolling on with its downsizing plans, and it seems prepared to crush whatever stands in its way — postal workers, post offices, communities, history.  There doesn’t seem to be anyone or anything that can stop it — not Congress, not the unions, not the Postal Regulatory Commission.  Perhaps it’s time for the People of the United States to take the U.S. Postal Service to court.  

The opportunity for a legal case presented itself just a few days ago when the Postal Service released its Environmental Assessment (EA) of the potential impacts of the Network Rationalization initiative, the plan to consolidate 250 processing plants.  The EA minimizes the potential effects of everything the Postal Service is planning to do, and the case, as they say, looks ripe for judicial review.


The FONSI Scheme

The EA was done pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires government agencies about to embark on an action that could have significant environmental impacts to conduct a thorough review prior to making decisions. 

On February 10, the Postal Service released the environmental assessment describing the impacts of the plan.  It’s called the Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA).  You can find a pdf of the PAE here.  (Note: It’s long — 170 pages plus appendices — and may take a while to download.)

Based on the results of the PEA, the Postal Service has issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), indicating that the Network Rationalization plan will not have a significant impact on the environment.

A finding of “no significant impacts” is pretty amazing when you consider that the PAE encompasses everything from air quality to socioeconomic factors, and when you also consider that the scope of the PAE is not limited to the plant consolidation plan.  NEPA requires agencies to consider the "cumulative effects" of a proposed action and the other related actions being proposed because effects may be exacerbated when they interact with each other.

The PAE thus considers several components of the USPS 2010 Action Plan, “Delivering the Future,” such as previous plant closings (AMPs), the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) to close 3,652 post office, eliminating Saturday delivery, enhanced alternate sites like the Village Post Office, and disposition of “excess buildings.” 

That’s a lot to consider, but the PAE still does not go as far as it should have.  At the same time it was doing the PAE, the Postal Service was preparing its Five-Year Plan, and the new business plan goes much further than the 2010 Action Plan.  Just in terms of post offices, for example, closing all 3,652 post offices in the RAOI would save $200 million, but the Business Plan indicates a savings of $2 billion in the retail network. That could only come from closing many thousands of post offices — probably 15,000, the number mentioned several times by the Postmaster General.  The PAE does not even begin to consider the impacts of that component of the Five-Year plan.  (More on the business plan here.)

According to NEPA, the agency doing the environmental review can come to one of three conclusions: (1) the action is a “categorical exclusion” (i.e., it’s so minor there won’t be any significant impacts, like installing energy efficient lighting); (2) there will be a significant environmental impact, in which case the agency must proceed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS); or (3) the impacts are uncertain, in which case the agency must prepare an environmental assessment (EA).  (There’s more about all this in the Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA.)

The Postal Service has gone down the third path, and the PAE, having reviewed the impacts, says the Network Rationalization plan, even combined with the RAOI and other actions, will not have a significantly adverse effect on the environment. 

The Postal Service has thus issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact."  The FONSI's main purpose is to show why the impacts will be negligible or at least not significant enough to merit a full Environmental Impact Statement.  That would have taken a lot of time and effort, and even more important, it would have given the public an opportunity to get involved in a very considerable way, with a draft EIS, scoping meetings, public comment periods, expert testimony, and a final EIS. 

The FONSI means that the environmental review of the Postal Service’s plans will have been very minimal, and the public will have essentially been excluded from any serious involvement with the process.  

A Mess in Maryland: Mail delayed and workers call for an investigation

February 20, 2012

Last year, when the Postal Service was studying the Processing and Distribution Center in Frederick, Maryland, for consolidation, postal officials said customers could expect the same level of service as before.  It doesn't look like things have worked out that way.  Numerous problems have come to the attention of the local press, and several former employees at the plan have filed a formal complaint with the USPS Inspector General.

On November 19, the Frederick P&DC was closed, and its processing work moved to the facility in Baltimore.  Frederick’s 180 employees were excessed to various other plants, including Baltimore (a congested 50-mile drive away) and Linthicum, Maryland (also 50 miles away). 

The consolidation actually began in October, and troubles occurred almost immediately.  Julie Maynard, editor and owner of The Brunswick Citizen and The Valley Citizen newspapers, told the Frederick News-Post on Nov. 21 that some of her customers still had not received papers that were printed Nov. 9.  Usually her subscribers receive the issue the day after it goes to press.  Maynard thinks that she lost a number of subscribers because of the delay, and she told the News-Post, “It’s just the beginning.”

As Christmas approached and mail volumes increased, the problems got worse.  The News-Post asked post office customers who had noticed a delay in mail service to contact the newsroom, and about 50 people responded.

One told the News-Post that medication refills he ordered in November from an online pharmacy in Florida were delivered to his home a month later.  A jewelry designer said pieces she sent to mail-order customers in early December had not reached their destinations two weeks later, forcing her to remake the pieces and resend them via UPS.  Other complaints described bills, insurance documents, and invitations that arrived late or never at all, and sale flyers arriving after the sale was over.

Last week, several of the former workers at the Frederick plant wrote a formal complaint to the USPS Inspector General.  The letter identifies examples of when the mail was significantly delayed, when mail was diverted to facilities other than Baltimore, and when trucks of mail were backed up for days, sometimes parked illegally on public roadways.  

The Postal Service Unrolls Its Five-Year Plan

February 19, 2012

The former Soviet Union was famous for five-year plans.  Between 1928 and 1991, it announced thirteen of them.  The plans were designed to increase economic production, achieve efficiencies through centralized planning, and redistribute the wealth along Marxist principles.  Each was announced with great fanfare and fantastic posters designed by progressive artists employing the latest propaganda techniques.  (The one at the left, done in 1930, says, "Fulfill the five-year plan not in five years, but in four.")

The Postal Service has just released a Five-Year Plan of its own.  Entitled “Plan to Profitability,” the new Business Plan is designed, like the Soviet plans, to take advantage of automation and improve efficiencies.  It too will redistribute the wealth, though the money will not be flowing in a direction Marx would have approved of.

The new Business Plan is basically a version of what the Postal Service floated this past summer in a couple of white papers on "workforce optimization" and the retiree benefit plans.  There may be a more thorough business plan sitting somewhere in postal headquarters, but the document released to the public is basically a Powerpoint presentation with a lot of groovy graphs and charts.  It's mostly PR, and the Postmaster General is doing the media circuit promoting the plan.  It's crunch time.  The moratorium on closing post offices and plants ends on May 15, and Congress needs a kick in the butt or else the Postal Service will have to execute its endgame, whatever that is.

The Soviet plans were mostly disasters — they caused famine, failed to reach goals, and led to a deteriorated standard of living — and the last of the plans, unrolled in 1991, didn't get past year one — the Soviet Union dissolved before it could be implemented.

We'll have to see how things go with the Postal Service's Five-Year Plan.  The headlines have all focused on the fifty-cent postage for a First-Class stamp, but there's a lot more in the plan worth noting, starting with who wrote it.


The Postal Service outsources its business plan

The Business Plan was produced with the help of Accenture and Boston Consulting Group, joined by the new member of the team, Evercore.  The Postal Service has hired the first two several times in the past to make projections and prepare action plans.  Their help does not come cheap.  Accenture received $125 million in 2011 in business from the Postal Service (it’s #7 on the list of biggest suppliers). 

Accenture is a global management consulting and technology outsourcing company that the Postal Service contracted to help produce the 2010 Action Plan and the background report for the USPS's 2008 "Report On Universal Postal Service and The Postal Monopoly," which argues the Postal Service needs "flexibility" in the way it defines the "universal service obligation."

The Boston Consulting Group is another of these global management consulting firms.  It “has played a major role in preparing companies for deregulation and privatization in post-Cold War Europe.”  BCG prepared a report projecting mail volumes through 2020 that the Postal Service frequently cites.

Evercore is the investment banking firm founded by Roger Altman, the “ultraconnected” Wall Street and DC insider who’s made millions parlaying his connections and giving out high-priced advice, like helping with the restructuring of General Motors.  The Postal Service hired Evercore a few months ago to provide the agency with advice on “restructuring.”  

(Update: The USPS press release about the Business Plan says that it "reflects prior business model analysis from McKinsey & Company."  McKinsey is another of these global management consulting firms.  According to Wikipedia,  it has an interesting track record: 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 only be a "niche market," and McKinsey has been named as a defendant in Hurricane Katrina litigation.  McKinsey was hired by Japan and India when their postal systems considered privatization, and the company website says, "We support our clients as they position themselves to meet regulatory requirements and accompany them on the road to successful privatization."  More here and here.) 

With consultants like these pitching in on the Business Plan, it’s not hard to guess what direction the Postal Service is heading.  

The plant consolidation plan: 35,000 jobs lost, and "no significant impact"?

February 16, 2012

In order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Postal Service has prepared a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the Mail Processing Network Rationalization Initiative.  Although 250 communities and 35,000 postal workers will be directly affected, the PEA states that the consolidation plan will have “No Significant Impact."

The “environment” includes not just air quality, noise, land use, and waste disposal but also socioeconomic considerations, like the economic impacts on the community.  It’s hard to believe that the Postal Service thinks closing a large processing plant will have no significant impact on a community, and there’s not much in the report to support the claim, either.

As part of the report, the Postal Service has provided more detailed numbers about the reduction in the workforce than it initially included in the Request for an Advisory Opinion to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC).  Nearly 35,000 positions would be affected.  The breakdown is summarized in the following table.

The Postal Service has previously provided a discussion about how the workforce reduction would be achieved, given that the union contracts have no-layoff clauses.  In the materials provided to the PRC back in December, there’s testimony by Kevin Rachel, a Manager in the USPS labor relations department, so for more details about RIF, VER, eReassign, etc., see his testimony, here.

The PAE also includes a discussion about the economic impacts on communities that lose their processing facility.  As the report explains, “These impacts may be direct impacts through loss of employment and expenditures to service providers and suppliers, and indirect through loss of jobs in other sectors of the local economy and loss of sales at local trade and service businesses, such as restaurants and gas stations.  In addition, service providers who are contracted directly with the Postal Service would also be impacted.”

The following table shows how the workforce reduction breaks down in terms of dollar amounts: 

As the table shows, cutting 34,058 jobs would have a direct labor impact of $2.58 billion.  That’s nearly $2.6 billion no longer flowing into communities through the salaries of postal workers.  But that’s just the beginning of the impact.  There’s also a huge ripple effect  on the rest of the community — non-postal workers in the service and retail sectors who lose their jobs, lost retails sales, lost tax revenue, and so on.

In order to assess what that might mean to an individual community, the Postal Service turned to a study of the economic impact of job losses in Springfield, Illinois (Sangamon County), where the Postal Service has a mail processing plan slated for consolidation.  The study was commissioned by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and it was conducted by the Regional Development Institute of Northern Illinois University.    

The study provides the following table showing the losses that closing the plant would cause:

The "direct" employment number refers to the 300 postal workers who would lose their jobs, and the “indirect” employment figure of 145 refers to service, retail, and other non-USPS jobs that would be lost if the plant closed.  The next three lines offer three different ways of calculating the losses.  The first, 'Employee Compensation," calculates the total salaries for the 300 postal workers (it uses an average of salary of $78,333, including benefits), plus the salary of 145 non-postal workers.  “Output” refers to the value of an industry’s business activities, including retail sales, that would be lost.  “Value added” refers to the gross domestic product of the county, and it includes employee compensation, rent, interest, taxes, and profit paid or earned.

The NIU study shows that you can't measure the impacts on the community by just looking at the salaries of postal employees.  The losses in "indirect" costs would be very large as well, whatever method of calculation you choose to use.  In the case of output losses, for example, the indirect losses are almost 40% of the total loss.

Just to put the losses in context, the total output losses of $42.7 million would be about 2.1% of Sangamon County's total output (in sales) of $2.1 billion.  Not a lot percentage-wise, perhaps, but still a considerable sum.

To get a sense of the impacts nationwide, we can extrapolate from the Sangamon numbers.  The Postal Service is planning to reduce the workforce by 35,000 jobs.  The Postal Service's own numbers show an impact of over $2.5 billion in salaries alone (that includes benefits).   But the output impacts, direct and indirect, would total $5 billion, and the lost wealth in terms of GDP would be about $3.7 billion. 

The PAE does not calculate nationwide impacts like this.  It simply concludes the discussion of economic impacts as follows: "The Proposed Action would result in a moderate adverse impact on local economies.  However, these impacts would not be significant.  On a national or programmatic level the economic impacts would be negligible because the overall economic system is much larger and some of the jobs lost at 'study' facilities could be offset by additional jobs at 'gaining' facilities.  Therefore, any impacts on the national economy would not be significant."

Deciding whether a particular economic impact is "moderate," "significant," or "negligible" is a qualitative judgment.  What may be "negligible" to the Postal Service may be very "significant" indeed to the community suffering the economic impacts of a consolidation.  And the notion that more economic activity in the communities with the "gaining" facilities will offset losses for the closing facilities makes little sense.  It's not as if the jobs are just going from one town to another.   The whole purpose of the consolidation plan is to eliminate 35,000 jobs.

The Postal Service says the consolidation plan will lead to "significant" cost savings for itself of $2.1 billion — about 3% of its annual budget.  In order to achieve this relatively modest cost savings, the Postal Service is willing to put 35,000 postal employees and 17,000 non-postal employees out of work and inflict $4 or $5 billion of losses on 250 communities across the country.  All so that it can save maybe $2 billion.  That’s postal math for you.

(Photo credit: Springfield IL post office & processing facility)

The Selling of the Venice Post Office: More than a touch of evil

February 15, 2012


Venice Beach, California, is an idyllic, bohemian, beach-side community that was once home to The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and Beat generation poets Stuart Perkoff and John Haag.  Today it still embraces alternative lifestyles and artists and performers who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else.  

The town's romantic archiecture, beaches, and piers have also attracted many filmmakers, and Venice has been the backdrop of several movies, like "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", "Heat," and "The Net."  The famous opening title sequence in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" was shot in Venice back in the fifties.

Also known as Venice of America, the city was founded in 1905 by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney, who re-created the Italian sister city’s architecture, canals, a lagoon with gondolas, the whole bit.  After its annexation by the city of Los Angeles in 1925, Venice saw many of its historical buildings, canals, and lagoon destroyed.  What survived is now considered to be the number one tourist destination in Southern California.

In the center of town majestically sits the Post Office, a 1939 Works Projects Administration building.  It houses the 1941 “Story of Venice” mural by Edward Biberman, a renowned California painter.  The beautiful, well-preserved mural depicts Abbot Kinney and his vision of Venice, as well as the oil wells and the destruction that followed annexation.

Truly the heart of the community, as all roads lead to it much like all arteries lead to the heart, the priceless post office building is now going to be sold.  Citizens and local organizations voiced their objections to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), but they were ignored. Venice residents and community associations then filed an official appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) asking for a hearing, but the PRC granted the USPS motion to dismiss the appeal.

At issue with the PRC was the USPS claim that the closing of the Venice post office was essentially a “relocation,” because services will be moved to what is currently the USPS Annex, located 400 feet away.  The appeal argued that the closing of the Venice post office should be considered a formal discontinuance, entitled to a full closure process, including a hearing before the PRC.  The Chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, is a Venice resident, so she chose to recuse herself from the vote because the case involved her own neighborhood.  The other three members of the PRC unanimously voted in favor of USPS’s decision to dismiss the appeal.

The plan now is to combine postal retail services with the mail sorting activities currently taking place in the Annex, and to sell the historic post office building.

Community input to the USPS has centered on selling the Annex instead, which could fetch three times more money than the beautiful post office building.  Venice mail sorting operations could easily fit into the basement of the current post office, and sorting operations for all other neighborhoods could move to other, less expensive locations.

It seems as if the effort to privatize the Postal Service by selling off post offices is spearheaded not just by the owners of private shipping organizations, but by USPS higher-ups as well.  Even the Public Representative of the USPS supported the dismissal of the appeal, even though the community is overwhelmingly united and outspoken against such action.

Aside from implementing cuts and closures that can only diminish revenue, the USPS has been intentionally suppressing revenue at the Venice branch.  For example, on January 22, when the price of stamps increased from 44 to 45 cents, the Venice post office did not have one cent stamps for sale.  It consistently has had only a limited selection of stamps, which is a major deterrent to stamp collectors and picky customers.

Furthermore, for the past two years only two of the five windows have been open for customer service regardless of the length of the line or the waiting time.  The USPS’s own provision to provide service in less than 20 minutes has been ignored on a daily, hourly basis.  Overworked clerks have to constantly deal with frustrated customers, which only contributes to their poor morale.

The retail facilities planned for the Annex consist of only two service windows, fewer parking spots for customers and employees, and significantly less mail sorting space in a facility that, according to current Venice postal employees, is already overcrowded.  In addition, the neighborhood surrounding the Annex is strictly residential, and the establishment of retail operations would have a negative environmental impact in a coastal zone that has not been addressed or considered.

Bill Maher, press spokesperson for the USPS, told Venice residents that the local post office has historical status, which proved to be untrue, as federal buildings are ineligible for such status.  Locals are now trying to place the building on the National List of Historical Buildings, which would not stop the USPS from selling it, but would prevent the buyer from tearing it down.  Public access to the building and the mural cannot be guaranteed, though, if the sale does proceed.

Los Angeles has a poor history of historical preservation.  The covenants attached to the sale of historic downtown hotels have easily been broken in recent years.  In addition, a Biberman mural removed from the downtown post office has disappeared and has not been found since.  In the mid 1980s Biberman himself embarked on a mission to find his displaced mural, to no avail.

The Venice community has been extremely outspoken and active in its efforts to save the post office. Two very successful rallies took place, attended by the likes of Bill Rosendahl, District Councilperson, and Debra Padilla, Executive Director of The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), alongside dozens of community members and activists.

A third rally is planned for February 18, 2 to 4 p.m., in front of the post office.  Thousands of petition signatures have been collected in the neighborhood and online at www.change.org (search Venice Post Office to sign).  For the latest updates or to just show that you "like" our efforts, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/savethevenicepostoffice.

Many local organizations and politicians have come together to stop the sale.  They include the Free Venice Beachhead, SPARC, Venice Arts Council, Venice Chamber of Commerce, Venice Neighborhood Council, Venice Peace and Freedom Party, Venice Stakeholders Association, Venice Town Council, Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, Edward Biberman Estate, New Deal Preservation Association, Los Angeles Conservancy, Council member Bill Rosendahl and Congressperson Janice Hahn.

Just like many other communities across the country, Venice is heart-broken to lose its post office.  Public outcry continues, the local paper covers the topic in its every edition (www.freevenice.org), and we are still collecting petition signatures.  Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm that has been representing us pro bono thus far, is currently assessing the possibility of a legal challenge before deciding whether it will continue to represent us.

Let’s not allow one of our oldest government institutions — with its strong labor unions ensuring good wages for workers and a network of post offices that benefit the poor, disabled, rural residents — to be dismantled in ways that favor big, private business.  Contact your Congress representatives and urge them to support H.R.1351 and S.1853, which would ease the requirement that the USPS pre-fund the health benefits of employees for the next 75 years in a ten-year period and would refund $18 billion of overpayments (and that’s aside from $75 billion the USPS has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System).

The USPS is a self-sufficient federal business that private shipping companies want destroyed.  Let’s not allow our politicians to be bought out this time as well.

(To contact Greta Cobar, email gretathegreat99@aim.com.)

(Photo credits: Venice post office; town center with p.o.; mural; 1910 postcard of Venice arcade; "Touch of Evil."  More on the Venice story here.)

Reuters gets it right: "Special Report: Towns go dark with post office closings"

February 14, 2012

There’s an excellent article on post office closings in Reuters today, by Cezary Podkul and Emily Stephenson.  One of its main themes is that while the Postal Service is claiming that the Internet is driving people away from traditional mail, many of the post offices slated for closure are in rural areas where there’s limited or no wired broadband Internet available. 

The article also questions whether the harsh impact on citizens is worth the small amount the Postal Service will save by the closings — about four-tenths of one percent of the Postal Service's annual expenses of $70 billion.

"That's a drop in the bucket," said William Henderson, who served as Postmaster General from 1998 to 2001.  "That's not even a drop in the bucket. The bucket won't ripple."

Accompanying the article is a terrific interactive map that allows users to click on a post office location and get all sorts of useful information, like population, broadband availability, and even whether UPS and FedEx have a surcharge for delivering to the area. 

Check out this article.  It’s one of the best that’s appeared in the mainstream media about post office closings, and the map is a very valuable tool.  Here's a video about the report.  (if it's not showing up, please refresh your browser.)

The spin doctors examine Post Office financials for Q1: “The patient is a goner”

February 10, 2012

This week the Postal Service released its financial report on the first quarter of fiscal year 2012 (Form 10-Q).  As you might have expected, it’s all bad news — that is, according to the Postal Service, the mainstream media, and Congressional postal experts.  The spin doctors tell us the patient is in critical condition and radical surgery is necessary.  Let them amputate a few limbs and remove some organs, and they’ll get the patient back on its foot in no time.

The truth of the matter is that the Postal Service actually ran a profit during the first quarter.  If the economy continues to improve, the prognosis will be just fine, and the Post Office will soon be on the road to recovery.  But the spin doctors have a different story to tell.


The Spin

“More red ink at post office: Quarterly loss of $3.3B as agency struggles to avoid bankruptcy,” proclaims the Washington Post

“Postal Service Loss Widens to $3.3 Billion,” says the Wall Street Journal

“U.S. Postal Service Loses $3.3 Billion, Warns of Cash Drain,” announces Bloomberg News.

"The longer the Postal Service remains in a weak position, the more damage can be done to our business," says Chief Financial Officer Joe Corbett.  "We need to change and get back to a point where we're financially stable so that our customers and our suppliers have faith in us."

“The U.S. Postal Service ended the first three months of its 2012 fiscal year (Oct. 1 - Dec. 31, 2011) with a net loss of $3.3 billion,” states the USPS press release.  “Management expects large losses to continue until the Postal Service has implemented its network re-design and down-sizing and has restructured its healthcare program.” 

“While the situation facing the Postal Service is dire,” says Senator Tom Carper, “it is not hopeless. That is why we need to pass this bipartisan and comprehensive bill as soon as possible.  It is my hope that Congress and the Administration can come together on this plan in order to save the Postal Service before it’s too late.”

With postal management, the media, and legislators like Carper all telling us that the Postal Service is hemorrhaging money and about to fall into a coma, it’s no wonder people are ready for whatever solutions our leaders can come up with. 

But the fact of the matter is that it’s all just spin.  The only thing endangering the Post Office right now is postal management and Congress. 

And the winner is . . . Trump selected to redevelop DC’s Old Post Office

February 7, 2012

The General Services Administration has selected Donald Trump to redevelop the Old Post Office building in downtown D.C.  The grand old icon is going to be converted into a luxury hotel, complete with “world renowned restaurants, a spa and conference facilities.”

The GSA says turning the building over to private hands will save the federal government millions of dollars in maintenance.  “The tremendous response from the private sector allowed us to select a proposal that will provide a consistent revenue stream for the Federal Government and better utilize a historic property on our nation’s best Main Street,” said Robert Peck, the GSA’s Public Buildings Service Commissioner.

The sale of yet another historic federal building goes hand-in-hand with the selling off of historic post offices that we’ve been witnessing.  The Postal Service is engaged in “divestiture” — a stage in the privatization process that involves selling off government assets to private companies.  The Postal Service has enlisted the help of the world's largest real estate firm, CRB Ellis, to help sell its properties, and the new USPS-CRBE website lists 78 of them.  There are probably many more USPS properties for, but the Postal Service refuses to release a list of them. 

Over the past few months, the Postal Service has sold New Deal post offices in Westport, Connecticut; Palm Beach, Florida; Ukiah, California; and Pinehurst, North Carolina.  Over the coming months, the same will happen to the post offices in Venice and La Jolla, California; Northfield, Minnesota; Athens, Pennsylvania; and Camas, Washington.

DC’s Old Post Office is not in the same category as these other historic post offices, since it’s not owned by the Postal Service and it hasn’t been an operating post office for decades.  But the push to sell off federal assets, whether they’re under the auspices of the Postal Service, the GSA, or another government agency, is troubling.  Many of these assets are valuable historic buildings that belong to the people of the United States.  Once they’re converted to things like luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and clothing boutiques, they’re no longer in the public realm and they’re off-limits, except to the privileged few.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed something called the Civilian Property Realignment Act (H.R. 1734), which will accelerate the sale of high-value, “underutilized,” federal properties.  “The purpose of 1734 is to actually shrink the size of government,” explained Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), one of the bill’s sponsors. If the bill gets through the Senate and signed into law, the legislation would prompt a massive sell-off of $500 million in government-owned real estate over the next three months. The sale of the Old Post Office is a prime example of what the bill aims to expedite. 

When construction was completed in 1899, the Old Post Office was the largest office building in D.C., the first to incorporate a steel frame in the city, the first federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the first government building to have its own power plant.  “Opening ceremonies,” says Wikipedia, “were marred when the postmaster of Washington fell to his death down an elevator shaft.”

In the 1930s, a new post office was built directly across 12TH Street, and the Old Post Office building was almost razed, but there wasn’t enough money around because of the Depression.  For the next 40 years, it was used as an overflow space for several government agencies.  With no agency responsible for it, the building fell into decay, and in the 1970s, it was almost destroyed again, but historic preservations came to the rescue and got funding for some renovation work. 

The building now houses the offices of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  They’ll all be moving out soon to make room for Trump’s new luxury hotel. 

Hopefully, things will work out better for this Trump enterprise.  Others have not been so successful.  Back in the early 1990s, two of Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey — the Taj Mahal and the Trump Plaza Hotel — went bankrupt. 

When sales of units in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago started to lag, the lender, Deutsche Bank, ended up in court for refusing to let Trump lower the prices to spur sales.  In court papers, Deutsche Bank observed that "Trump is no stranger to overdue debt" and noted that he had twice previously filed for bankruptcy regarding his casino operations.  Trump didn’t like that one bit, and he initiated a suit asserting that his image had been damaged.  

Trump has caused endless controversy in New York with his projects, like the Trump SoHo, an out-of-scale 46-story monstrosity located in an historic neighborhood where most of the buildings are about six-to-ten stories.  There have been suits and counter-suits between the architects and developers over design problems, and several condo-buyers filed a suit claiming they were lied to about how well the units were selling.

The Old Post Office is located at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, about five blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The new Trump hotel will be as close as the Donald ever gets to the White House.

UPDATE (Feb. 9, 2011): Looks like Donald's plans may be in for a bumpy ride.  D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton "isn't ready to celebrate" the GSA's decision.  According to the Washington Business Journal, she says the project is fraught with potential complications that could put an end to the deal before it ever starts.

(Photo credits: The Old Post Office;  the OPO with Trump International logo; the Donald; the Trump SoHo.)

Postal politics gets ugly: The Post attacks the PRC Chair

February 6, 2012

There’s a lot at stake in the battle over postal reform — billions of dollars of corporate profits, the power of unions, the very existence of post offices — so one can’t be surprised that the politics got a little rough this week.  The Washington Post has just run a piece attacking Ruth Goldway, Chairman of the Postal Regulator Commission, accusing her of spending too much time and money on travel.  The hatchet job by Ed O’Keefe makes a mountain out of a molehill, and one has to wonder why it was ever written or published — and who was really behind it.

The slant of the article is clear right in the title: “Postal regulatory chairman’s $70,000 in travel comes under scrutiny.”  That makes it sound like someone else is scrutinizing Goldway and O’Keefe is just reporting on it, but as it turns out, he’s the one who has initiated the whole thing. 

“Days before the U.S. Postal Service announced record-setting losses in September," the article begins, "the nation’s top postal regulator traveled to Scotland for meetings with European envelope manufacturers.” 

O’Keefe would have us visualize the PRC’s chairman out gallivanting around Europe, insensitive to or unaware of the fact that the Postal Service was losing billions.  She should have been in her office doing her job regulating the Postal Service, suggests O’Keefe, instead of worrying about European envelopes.

The article, along with an accompanying interview with Chairman Goldway, paints a picture of a government official globetrotting on the taxpayer’s dime, someone who’s out of the office more than in it.  0'Keefe even had someone count up all the days Goldway was on the road, and he lists her destinations as if she were doing “Around the World in 80 Days.” 

O’Keefe is making a big deal out of nothing.  There’s nothing unusual about Goldway’s travel expenses.  O’Keefe says Goldway has spent $70,000 since she became the PRC chair in August 2009 (after serving as a Commissioner since 1998).  That’s two and a half years ago, so it comes to about $28,000 a year. 

That may seem like a lot to us average Americans, but for a senior government official with national and international responsibilities, it’s not very much.  As O’Keefe’s own investigation revealed, Goldway’s predecessor as chair of the PRC, Dan Blair, spent $58,788 on travel during his two-and-a-half-year tenure — about $23,500 a year, just a few thousand less than Goldway — and there was a lot less going on in postal world back then. 

Goldway’s travel expenses are also in the same ballpark as other high-ranking officials in the postal system.  According to an OIG audit, the nine members of the USPS Board of Governors incurred $163,000 in travel and miscellaneous expenses in fiscal year 2011.  The report doesn’t break it down per person or separate travel from miscellaneous expenses, but if that $163,000 includes the Postmaster General and the Deputy PMG, it comes to over $18,000 per Board member, and if it doesn’t include them, the remaining seven Board members averaged over $23,000 per person in travel and miscellaneous expenses.

Another OIG audit on “Officers’ Travel and Representation Expenses for Fiscal Year 2011” says that the travel and representation expenses for USPS officers totaled about $700,000.  The USPS website has a page of “officers” that lists some 35 of them.  That would come to about $20,000 per officer.

Those USPS executives, by the way, earn a very nice salary, too.  While the Postal Service was wracking up its huge deficit in 2010, the top 38 USPS officials earned more than cabinet secretaries.  (The Post has been silent on that story.) 

The Postmaster General likes to get around himself.  In December, for example, just a few days after the Postal Service had announced plans to close half the country’s processing plants, put 35,000 postal employees out of work, and slow down first-class mail by a day or more, the Postmaster General was off for the COP17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa, where, according to a USPS press release, he “heralded the U.S. Postal Service’s sustainability successes, making the business case to go green.”  (The irony of the PMG discussing the environment is explored in this article.)

Not only are Goldway’s travel expenses comparable to those of her predecessor and other postal executives, the PRC’s travel budget, as Goldway told the Post, represents just one percent of the agency’s total budget. 

Another disturbing thing about the Post article is the way O’Keefe solicited reaction to his big scoop.  Whom did he call for a quote?  Darrell Issa and Thomas Carper. 

Issa is identified in the article as a congressman who “tracks postal issues.”  No mention of the fact that Issa is spearheading legislation in the House that would dismantle the Postal Service by creating a commission to close post offices and plants and basically make the PRC irrelevant.  He’s quoted as saying that Goldway’s travel schedule was troubling.  “When organizations are struggling,” said Issa, “good leaders often make a pointed effort of curbing their own expenses as an example.”

That’s rich.  According to the Watchdog Institute, Issa’s staff has close ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, whose Cato institute advocates postal privatization, and Issa has received generous campaign contributions from the brothers as well.  Issa is also the subject of an ethics complaint issued by American Family Voices with the Office of Congressional Ethics, alleging that he has repeatedly used his public office for personal financial gain.  (See Wikipedia for more.)

The Post might have asked Issa — the richest man in Congress — how he’s  been curbing his own expenses these days.  Back in 2006, issa was described as “the best-traveled member of San Diego County's congressional delegation.”  Issa ranked 24th among all House members on a list of taxpayer-paid travel.  

What’s to hide? The Postal Service turns over some closing lists

February 4, 2012

Getting closing lists out of the Postal Service is like, well, pulling teeth.  Over the past several months, hundreds of post offices have closed, gone into emergency suspension, or received a Final Determination notice indicating they’ll close in 60 days.  But try to find a list of all of these post offices on the USPS website.  One gets the impression that the Postal Service would prefer that the public not have access to this data. 

It’s not as if the information is really secret.  Every community that sees its post office close or that gets a Final Determination knows about it, and there’s usually at least one local news article when a post office closes.  But in a very real sense, most closures take place below radar, and it’s difficult to see what’s happening at a national level.  In the UK, where they’ve closed over 7,000 post offices, something similar has gone on.  They call it “the secret closure programme.”

To make things more transparent, Save the Post Office has been tracking the closings, but it’s been difficult.  The Postal Service turned down a request made under the Freedom of Information Act for materials about the closings.  (Actually, it didn’t turn down the request outright – it just said that the information would cost $650, plus photocopying.)  Compiling data from a variety of sources like news reports is time consuming and prone to error.  The USPS website itself has incorrect information, and important pages are not updated often enough.

Yesterday, we had some good news in the list department.  In response to a request from the Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), the Postal Service submitted several lists containing information about post office closings and suspensions.  Chairman Ruth Goldway made the information request (see #28) a couple of weeks ago as part of the information gathering required for the PRC’s annual compliance report.

The lists can be accessed in an Excel document (with five sheets) on the PRC website here, and there’s a description of the lists he re.  The lists are readily available on the Save the Post Office website as well (links below).  (Note that the new lists have several errors and anomalies, some of which have already been identified by Going Postal.)

Goldway has requested seven lists.  Five were submitted yesterday, and two more are forthcoming.  Below are links to each list, along with a few comments (not provided by the Postal Service):

a. Post Offices Closed After 1/1/2011: This list contains 430 post offices that closed during 2011. 

That’s considerably more than the 280 USPS VP Dean Granholm indicated had closed as of October 13, and somewhat shy of the 500 that Postmaster General Donahoe said had closed as of mid-November.  It’s also many more than Save the Post Office was able to identify as of just a few weeks ago, when we published a list of 320

b. Post Offices Under Suspension as of 1/1/2012: This list contains 227 post offices — some suspended as recently as June 2011, and others as far back as 1986 — which were still suspended as of the first of the year.  

The list does not indicate the reason for the suspension, but it certainly illustrates how suspensions can go on forever, which amounts to a de facto discontinuance, without due process.  Most of these post offices were suspended during 2008 to 2010.  In March of 2011, the Postal Service gave the PRC a much longer list of about 330 post offices that remained under suspension.  Many of those have apparently re-opened or closed permanently after a formal discontinuance process.  Chairman Goldway mentioned at a meeting of the PRC in January that about 200 suspended offices had closed or were being studied for closure.

c. Post offices Suspended after 1/1/2011: This list contains 211 post offices that were suspended during 2011, as well as two that were suspended in early 2012. 

Like list (b), it does not indicate the reason for suspension, nor does it say what the current status of these post offices are.  A search of news articles about these suspensions suggests that many, if not most, were due to weather-related problems, like Hurricane Irene, the flooding in the Midwest, tornados, and so on, and most of them eventually re-opened.  In some cases, however, the Postal Service chose not to find a new location, and essentially used the natural catastrophe as an opportunity to suspend and subsequently close the post office.  The post office in Reading, Kansas, for example, was destroyed by a tornado in May, and three months later, the town learned the Postal Service was studying the post office for permanent closure.

Where's the emergency? Suspended post offices in 2011 & a list of leases ending soon

February 2, 2012

There’s a moratorium on closing post offices until May 15, but it doesn’t apply to “emergency suspensions,” as we learned at a meeting of the Postal Regulatory Commission earlier this week. That means any post office with a lease expiring soon is in danger, and there are 1,400 of them with leases that end during the moratorium.  A list is here.

An emergency suspension occurs when the Postal Service temporarily closes a post office — often with little or no notice to the community — for emergencies like the postmaster gets sick and there’s no replacement available, or the building is unsafe due to heavy snowfall or a tornado. 

But sometimes the emergency doesn’t seem like an “emergency” at all — it’s just a dispute over a lease renewal.  The Postal Service knows long in advance when a lease will expire, so there should be plenty of time to work out a new agreement or find a new location.  It’s rarely an emergency situation, but sometimes the Postal Service turns it into one.  And sometimes a “temporary” suspension can go on for years. 

The Postal Service often manufactures an emergency by making demands on the property owner that are just too hard to swallow — like insisting on a rent reduction or an early-out clause that gives the Postal Service the right to terminate the lease with 90-days’ notice, or like telling the owner to take over responsibility for maintenance work that the Postal Service had been doing.  When the owner and Postal Service can’t come to an agreement, the Postal Service declares an “emergency suspension” and the post office closes.

These days, with the Postal Service looking for any reason it can find to close facilities, a post office with a lease expiring is in imminent danger of an emergency suspension.  Some 4,500 post offices have leases that expire in 2012, and about 1,400 of them have leases that expire between January 1 and May 15, 2012, the day the moratorium ends. 

The issue of emergency suspensions came up this week at a meeting of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which has an open docket on an investigation into the practice of suspending post offices over lease issues.  That investigation began a couple of years ago, but it looks as if it stalled out because of the PRC’s other pressing business — Advisory Opinions, appeals cases, compliance reports, and all the rest.  Or perhaps because the Commissioners believe the abuses have ended.

At the meeting on Wednesday, PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway made the following comments during a discussion of the scope of the moratorium on closings: “Just for clarification, there have been a couple of small articles I’ve read recently on post office suspensions involving leases that were expired. . . .  If a post office is suspended,” she asked the PRC’s General Counsel, “do citizens have a right to appeal to us?” 

The PRC attorney said no, the statute applies only to closures, and he reminded the Chairman of “concern that suspensions were being maintained for an inordinately long period of time which amounted to a de facto closing, and we’ve had review work done in that area, but when a suspension occurs just because the lease expires, customers cannot appeal that action to us.” 

Goldway then commented, “So there are some post offices that are closing even within this moratorium, but to the best of my knowledge they are ones that involve issues where the Postal Service has been in negotiations and there are just disputes between the landlord and the Postal Service — legitimate disputes about lease terms — and as a result on occasion a post office does close.  But they are no longer using suspensions as a de facto cover for post office closings, as they admitted in some ways were the case because they admitted to us that there was a backlog of 400 or so suspended post offices that they were officially closing in their records that we haven’t received appeals on.  They’ve been at least more honest and straightforward and systematic about reporting their decisions on post office closings, so that’s useful. (Comments at about 32 minutes into the podcast).

The Chairman’s comments suggest that concern over the emergency suspensions has diminished because the Postal Service has become more “honest and straightforward.”  There’s reason to believe, however, that the Postal Service is continuing to manufacture emergencies and to close post offices without due process.  Several post offices closed in 2011 over dubious lease issues, and it looks like some will be suspended during the moratorium as well. 


Suspensions in 2011

About thirty post offices have been suspended since the beginning of 2011, and at least eleven of them were over lease problems. [CORRECTION; On Feb. 3, 2012, the Postal Service gave the PRC a list of post offices suspended since Jan. 1, 2011, and it contains 213 post offices.  Most of them involved floods and storms and were subsequently reopened.  Here’s the list of the suspended post offices,]

Here are a few details about some of those that were suspended because of lease issues:

The post office in Mineral Ridge, Ohio was suspended on March 25, 2011, over a lease dispute.  According to a local news report, the Postal Service says it tried to “reach out” to the owner in July 2009, but didn’t get a response until January 2010; the landlord rejected that offer, says the Postal Service, and didn’t make a counteroffer until October.   The owner says different.  He says, "We were never in negotiations.”  He sent the Postal Service a lease with a rent increase for the cost of things the postmaster wanted fixed, but he never heard back.  He emailed the Postal Service to complain: “You are publicly saying you’re trying to negotiate.”  He got an email back saying “they are not willing” to negotiate.

The post office in Johnsonburg, New Jersey, closed in March when the landlord terminated its lease.  No further details are available about why.  The post office has been in this location for a hundred years.

The post office in Arlington, Iowa, closed in April over a lease dispute — on five days’ notice.  According to an article in the Des Moines Register by Kyle Munson (who’s been following the closings in Iowa carefully), “The mayor and the lessor allege that the Postal Service manufactured the lease crisis to set up quicker closure of an office served by a full-fledged postmaster. The Postal Service denies this.”

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