Holler for help: There's no stopping emergency suspensions
November 12, 2012
According to a USPS service disruption report issued on November 10, over 330 post offices were impacted by Hurricane Sandy. About 120 were completely shut down, and another 30 had the retail operations suspended. Many of these offices remain closed, but it’s likely they will all eventually reopen once power is restored.
The same cannot be said for several other post offices that have been suspended over the past few weeks for reasons other than Sandy. Since September, when the Postal Service began its implementation of POStPlan, numerous post offices on the list have been closed by emergency suspension, and there’s little chance they’ll ever reopen.
Rather than maintaining these offices at reduced hours as promised, the Postal Service has decided simply to close them. The explanations being offered for these suspensions aren't very convincing, the circumstances don’t sound like emergencies, and there’s no indication that the closures are only temporary.
In previous articles on this website, we’ve noted a few cases where the Postal Service suspended offices on the POStPlan list. For example, the offices in Helen, Maryland and Brownsville, Maryland, were closed by emergency suspension just days after the postmaster retired. The people in these towns were never given an opportunity to comment on the four POStPlan options (a Village Post Office, rural delivery, a post office in another town, or reduced hours). They simply received a notice in the mail and found a sign on the door of the post office saying it was suspended due to a lease termination.
While POStPlan is being advertised as a plan to keep small post offices open, the Postal Service continues to use emergency suspensions to close offices on the list. Here’s a roundup of a few more examples of the practice.
A VPO replaces the PO in Climax
The post office in Climax, Georgia, was on the POStPlan list, with its hours set to be reduced to six a day. Its postmaster took the retirement incentive back in July, and since there was a postmaster vacancy, Climax was among the first group of post offices to be reviewed under POStPlan.
On September 28, Climax residents and city officials received the survey about the four POStPlan options, as well as a letter informing them that there would be a public meeting with a representative from the Postal Service on November 8th.
In mid October, everyone got a second letter from the Postal Service. This one said that the post office would be closed at the end of the month. People were obviously confused about what was going on and how the Postal Service could have decided to close the office before the meeting even took place.
The post office closed on October 31, and the meeting was held, as scheduled, on November 8, in the parking lot of the (closed) post office. Angela Collier, the Postal Service operations manager, explained that the office was being suspended because the lease expired and could not be renewed.
As reported in the local news, Collier said that while she did not have first-hand knowledge of the negotiations — they'd had been handled by the USPS’s Facilities Department — her understanding was that the landlord said, “this is what I want, period,” and the Postal Service said, “this is what we can do, period.” Since “those two would never match,” said Collier, the negotiations ended, and the post office was closed for an emergency suspension.
The landlord of the Climax post office building, Morgan Wolaver, has a different version of what happened. Mr. Wolaver, by the way, is not your typical post office lessor, someone who usually owns one or two post offices and doesn’t have much experience negotiating leases with the Postal Service. Mr. Wolaver’s family has been in the business of owning and leasing post office buildings for over fifty years, and they own dozens of them. Mr. Wolaver also happens to be the President of the AUSPL, the country’s largest association of postal lessors. There aren't many people who know more about negotiating leases with the Postal Service than Mr. Wolaver.
In a conversation this morning, Mr. Wolaver told me the Climax story as he saw it. In mid-July, a couple of weeks after the postmaster decided to retire, the Postal Service’s real estate agent, CBRE, finally contacted him about renewing the lease. Negotiations on lease renewals traditionally begin six months to a year before the end of the lease, so Mr. Wolaver was concerned that CBRE had waited until there were just three and a half months left on the lease.
Knowing that market rents were down, Mr. Wolaver responded to initial negotiations by offering to reduce the rent by 15%. But USPS directed CBRE to negotiate a 35% reduction, based on average lease rents, which is a method CBRE has disallowed in all previous lease negotiations with him. They had two conversations in which Mr. Wolaver offered to reduce rents by 20%. With the issue still unresolved, Mr. Wolaver didn’t hear anything more from CBRE.
About a month later, Mr. Wolaver got a phone call from a person in the Facilities Department of the Postal Service. He was told that the post office would be moving out of his building when the lease ended on October 31st. Mr. Wolaver offered to increase the rent reduction to 25%, but the Postal Service wasn’t interested.
The difference between the landlord's offer and the Postal Service’s demand came to less than $3,000 a year — a small percentage of the annual operating costs for the Climax post office, and a relatively small amount however you look at. But the Postal Service had other plans.
On October 31, the Postal Service closed the post office and moved out of Mr. Wolaver’s building. The next day, it opened a Village Post Office down the street, at Ware’s General Merchandise.
A week later, the Postal Service held the POStPlan meeting to tell folks what was happening and to explain why, rather than reducing the hours at the post office, the Postal Service was simply closing it. To add insult to injury to Mr. Wolaver, they held the meeting on his property, after terminating the lease, without asking permission.
Mr. Wolaver doesn’t think that the Postal Service was ever very serious about renewing the lease. Over the summer, it was sending out letters to local businesses looking for a VPO location, and apparently, once one was found, there was even less interest in renewing the lease. “They just wanted to close the building,” says Mr. Wolaver, and that’s what they did.
Mr. Wolaver is still willing to negotiate with the Postal Service, and he’s continuing his efforts to reopen the Climax office. He’s been talking with the mayor and elected officials in D.C., encouraging them to explain to the Postal Service why it just can’t close a post office whenever it wants and replace it with a Village Post Office.
In its advisory opinion on POStPlan, the Postal Regulatory Commission addressed that very issue. The Commission was clear about its view that VPOs should not be used as substitutes for post offices. In his testimony before the PRC, Mr. Jeffrey Day, the man running POStPlan, assured the Commission that VPOs would serve as “enhancements," not as “replacements,” for post offices. A town might have a VPO as well as a regular post office, said Mr. Day, but the Postal Service would not be closing post offices and replacing them with VPOs.
Nonetheless, in Climax, Georgia, the Postal Service has done just that. It has closed the post office — over a matter of less than $3,000 a year — and replaced it with a Village Post Office.
No word on what's next in Danville
The post office in Danville, Georgia, is on the POStPlan list, set to have it hours reduced to four a day. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the Danville post office will be closing at the end of November.
It’s another case of an emergency suspension, this time due to the poor condition of the building and the expense of doing renovations. The local news report is brief, and there’s no explanation of how the suspension came about, what options were presented to the landlord about doing the renovations, and so on.
But we do know that the post office has been in this building since 1963, so the problems with its condition did not develop overnight. One wonders why the need for renovations would justify an emergency suspension at this point in time. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the lease ended on October 31, 2012.
The news report says, “There's no word on whether the office will reopen,” but it doesn’t take Nate Silver to figure the odds on the Danville post office ever opening again.
Chances of reopening in in Angora, slim to none
The post office in Angora, Minnesota, is on the POStPlan list, and it was supposed to stay open with its hours reduced to four a day. But on Wednesday, November 21, it will close for an emergency suspension. Chances are, it will be closed permanently. As Dave Krage, manager of post office operations for the area, told citizens at a meeting on November 1, "The Angora Post Office is under emergency suspension with a slim chance of being re-opened."
The POStPlan surveys were sent out in September, and a meeting to discuss the results was scheduled for October 18. But Mr. Krage did not even bother bringing the surveys to the meeting because, as he explained, the results did not matter since the lease had been terminated and the office was closing.
The local news report, apparently based on Mr. Krage’s comments, says that the Postal Service requires a "month-to-month" lease agreement so either side can cancel on short notice. The lessor, Hancock Fabrication Inc., decided to end the lease to the post office and to use the space itself because it seemed obvious that the Postal Service was looking to close the post office sooner or later.
As for relocating, Mr. Krage said, "There is no location or building that would meet our specifications.” He also thought that it was unlikely that a Village Post Office would be established either.
Mr. Krage explained that the original mission of the Postal Service was to provide mail service to every person in the USA, but “things are different now due to economic constraints."
It’s somewhat surprising to hear a representative of the Postal Service announce that the agency has abandoned its universal service obligation because of its financial situation. Perhaps someone at the Postal Service can explain how running at a deficit now permits the Postal Service to ignore Title 39 and to close post offices whenever it wants.
No PMR in Chester
The post office in Chester, Oklahoma, was being studied for closure last year under the RAOI, and it appeared on the POStPlan list as a Level 4. But rather than having the hours reduced, the office was closed in October for an emergency suspension, with virtually no notice to customers.
As with several hundred POStPlan post offices, the Chester postmaster arranged to take a new position at a full-time office. Her last day was arranged for Friday, October 5. On October 2, she was told the office would be suspended at the end of the week. The explanation: no available personnel to run the office.
The building has been in need of repairs for quite some time, and that might have been part of the Postal Service's decision to close the office. But the reason stated in public was that there was no postmaster relief available to take over.
The retiring Chester postmaster took the news of the closing hard, and a few weeks later, she decided not to stay on at her new job and just resigned.
Just holler for help in Tioga
The post office in Tioga, North Dakota, is not on the POStPlan list, but it’s having the same difficulty they ran into in Chester. It's a problem that could become more widespread as the first 500 POStPlan offices see their hours reduced on November 17th.
In the middle of October, retail services were suspended at the Tioga office for a couple of weeks because the Postal Service couldn’t find anyone to work the window. It’s not clear whether or not there was an official emergency suspension, but that looks like what happened.
According to a local news report, the Postal Service has been finding it difficult to hire part-time workers for $9.50 an hour. Apparently five people have been recently hired and trained to work the window, but they all quit “in short order.” The Postal Service sent someone over to sort the mail, but the window was closed, and “patrons said the only way they have been able to speak to a postal employee for the better part of two weeks is to open their box and holler into the interior of the office to try to get someone’s attention.”
In nearby Ray, North Dakota, the post office is on the POStPlan list, and there was a meeting on November 6 “to discuss the options.” Of course, there are no real options, and the Postal Service had decided to change the hours to 8:00 to 3:00 with an hour for lunch, even before the meeting happened.
But it looks like the bigger issue at Ray will be finding someone to work the office. As that local news report says, “A worker answering the phone at the Ray station last week said she gave notice to quit this week and didn’t know who would be filling in.” They may soon be hollering for help in Ray, too.
An appeal to the PRC from Tyner
Last month we reported that the decision to close the post office in Tyner, Indiana, initially victim of an emergency suspension, was being appealed to the PRC. The appeal argues that the Postal Service is in violation of Title 39 because it did not follow the proper procedures for discontinuing a post office.
The Postal Service has filed a Motion to Dismiss saying that the office has not been permanently closed. The Postal Service claims that while a proposal to study the office for closure was posted, no final determination has even been issued, making an appeal premature, even though the office has been closed for well over a year.
The motion provides this explanation for the suspension: “On June 18, 2011, the Post Office was emergency suspended due to: (1) the resignation of the postmaster on June 17, 2011, (2) minimal workload, and (3) national decline in mail volume.”
These reasons raise several questions about the suspension practice. The USPS Discontinuance Guide says a post office may be suspended when there’s a lack of qualified personnel to run the office, when a lease is canceled and there’s no suitable alternate quarters, when there’s a fire, natural disaster, or damage to the building, when there’s a “challenge to the sanctity of the mail,” or “similar reasons.”
This list does not include any of the reasons cited for the Tyner suspension. The Postal Service knew well in advance that the postmaster would be retiring, and there was plenty of time to find someone to staff the office. A postmaster vacancy in itself is not cause for a suspension.
Low workload and the a national decline in mail volumes are clearly not “emergencies,” and it makes no sense to cite them as causes for a suspension either, since these explanations could be used to justify closing any post office by emergency suspension at any time.
Because no Final Determination has been issued, the PRC may grant the Postal Service its motion to dismiss the appeal, but the Commission is likely to question the Postal Service on its rationale for suspending the office in the first place and on its failure to follow up by reopening the office or initiating a proper discontinuance process.
The Chairman's concerns
When the Postal Regulatory Commission issued its advisory opinion on POStPlan back in August, Chairman Goldway wrote a concurring opinion in which she expressed her concerns about emergency suspensions at POStPlan offices. She specifically cited problems associated with lease negotiations and “stemming from the inability to hire employees."
In interrogatories posed to the Postal Service and during the cross-examination of Mr. Day, the staffing issue came up several times. The Postal Service reassured the Commission that it had plenty of experience finding and training part-time workers, and Mr. Day said they would have no difficulties staffing 13,000 post offices.
Despite these reassurances, Chairman Goldway wrote the following in her concurring opinion: "There is a sizable risk that the Postal Service will encounter difficulties recruiting qualified employees for these positions in many communities, and the consequences of not finding those employees is that service to the community would be impaired or eliminated."
As for the lease issue, when Mr. Day was being cross-examined, Chairman Goldway said that she had just come from a meeting with representatives of the lessors association where she had been told that “the new lease negotiators for the Postal Service, CBRE, are basically insisting on 20, 30 percent lower rents, 30-day notice, landlords paying for the commissions, all kinds of things that hadn’t been part of previous contracts, and they’re doing this in the smallest of post offices” (transcript, p. 294).
Chairman Goldway then put the following question to Mr. Day: “If your commitment is to keep these post offices there and the negotiators for real estate are doing everything they can to put landlords in a position where they say forget it, and you can suspend the post office because then there’s no lease, we don’t seem to be going in the same direction here. And I just wanted to get from you your sense of how committed the Postal Service is to actually maintaining all these 13,000 post offices, or are we going to see more and more suspensions based on canceling of leases?”
In response, Mr. Day said that in some cases leases had been negotiated in better days but now that the Postal Service’s financial situation had taken a bad turn, they had to push back in the lease negotiations and not pay “top dollar.”
Chairman Goldway didn't seem very satisfied with Mr. Day's answer, and she asked for an institutional response from the Postal Service. A few days later the Postal Service issued a response that quoted Handbook PO-101: “'Wherever possible … local management should … seek to continue operations as long as necessary...' If leases cannot be renegotiated in the currently operating facility, the Postal Service will look for a suitable alternative facility. If a suitable alternative facility cannot be found, a discontinuance study will be initiated.”
The Postal Service has a long history of improperly using emergency suspensions to close post offices. There have been Congressional investigations into the practice, and there’s an open docket at the PRC about it. It looks as though little has changed, however, and it seems that nothing can stop the Postal Service from continuing to abuse the emergency suspension provision to close post offices whenever it wants.
(Photo credits: Climax, GA post office; Brownsville, MD post office; meeting outside the post office in Climax, GA; Ware's general store in Climax (Google Streetview); Danville, GA post office; Angora, MN post office; sign in the window of the Ray, ND post office; Chester, OK post office; Tyner, IN post office)