The incredible shrinking Postal Service: More tales of suspensions, reductions, relocations, and sell-offs
September 24, 2012
While the United Parcel Service is busy looking for innovative ways to make its retail stores more profitable, the Postal Service can only think about more junk mail. Rather than seeing value in its own network of brick-and-mortar post offices, the Postal Service is cutting the hours at 13,000 small offices, replacing historic downtown post offices with retail counters in annexes on the outskirts of town, and closing and suspending post offices on an ad hoc basis, thereby avoiding another advisory opinion with the Postal Regulatory Commission.
Mass closures may have been temporarily averted, but the Postal Service continues to shut down post offices. Rather than closing them the old-fashioned way, with a formal discontinuance process, the Postal Service is deploying an alternative vocabulary of “relocations,” “consolidations,” and “suspensions.” Whatever you call them, though, from the point of view of citizens and communities, the result is the same: the doors of the post office are closed.
USPS cuts back, UPS expands
A couple of weeks ago, the Postal Service began implementing POStPlan. It's been scheduling public meetings and sending out surveys to determine whether customers would prefer to have their post office closed or to have its hours reduced. It may seem like a silly question, and one wonders why the Postal Service would spend so much time and money on surveys and community meetings when the outcome is obvious.
Judging by the way people are responding to the survey, however, one explanation is emerging. The way the survey is worded, many people are being led to believe that their post office is actually in imminent danger of closing. Presenting four options — three of which involve closing the post office — turns out to be a useful tactic to make people happy to learn in the end that the hours at their post office are simply being cut and the office will stay open. After all, it could be worse.
While the Postal Service is busy getting ready to cut over 10 million hours at these 13,000 post offices (about a third of the hours of operation), the United Parcel Service is looking at ways to expand their retail business. Last week the New York Times ran two pieces, one about the Postal Service’s efforts to expand its junk mail business, the other about how UPS is expanding services at its UPS Stores.
UPS offers not only packing and shipping but also printing services and many other products, like mailboxes. Its latest initiative is the “Small Business Solutions” campaign, which customizes services to meet specific business needs. The Postal Service is also innovating with small businesses, but its main new offering is "Every Door Direct Mail" — a way to saturate a neighborhood with ad mail.
Hours cut in South Carolina — last year
While UPS sees value in its retail business, the Postal Service thinks it will come out ahead by cutting back on service at its own, much larger network of retail outlets. It claims POStPlan will save $500 million a year, but that probably overestimates the savings by over a $150 million (as this analysis shows), and it doesn’t include any lost revenue at all.
During the advisory opinion process, the Postal Service told the PRC that it couldn’t estimate how much revenue might be lost under POStPlan because it had never done anything like this before. Turns out, however, that’s not entirely true.
Last year the Postal Service cut hours at hundreds of post offices from 8 ½ to 6. The reductions took place primarily in South Carolina, where about the half state’s 410 post offices are now open for 6 hours a day, typically 9:00 to 1:00 and 2:00 to 4:00. The change in hours wasn’t nationwide and thus didn’t require an advisory opinion, but the scale was large enough for the Postal Service to evaluate how much revenue was lost in the process. But when it responded to numerous interrogatories posed during the advisory opinion process about revenue impacts, the Postal Service didn’t even mention the change in hours that took place in South Carolina.
There was a time when all post offices were open at least 8 ½ hours. The Postal Operations Manual, Section 126.4 (entitled “Retail Hours”) used to have a passage that read: “Postmasters provide all retail services for 8 1/2 or more hours on nonholiday weekdays, unless otherwise authorized by the district manager, Customer Service and Sales.”
In the July 15, 2010, issue of Postal Bulletin, the Postal Service announced a revision of that passage that deleted the reference to 8 ½ hours. Now Section 126.4 simply says that retail services and lobby hours “should reflect time periods that most appropriately meet the needs of the majority of customers in the local area.”
Apparently the folks in South Carolina don’t need a post office after 4 p.m., and soon 13,000 communities across the country won’t need a post office for 8 ½ hours either. Cutting hours like this will inevitably push people to seek alternatives, and some of them aren’t going to be with the Postal Service, but because the Postal Service doesn't know how to estimate lost revenues, there won't be any.
No roof for Dresher
While most of the attention has lately been focused on the implementation of POStPlan, the Postal Service is continuing its efforts to close, suspend, and relocate post offices all across the country.
The post office in Dresher, Pennsylvania, was closed by emergency suspension on Friday of last week, but the local news report makes it sound like it's a permanent closure. Customers with p.o. boxes have been told they can have boxes provided for them at another post office, and there’s no chance that the post office will reopen in the same building — it’s probably going to be razed.
The landlord of the Dresher post office owns the Mercedes parts and service facility next door to the post office. The postmaster said he heard in August that Mercedes decided it wanted to tear down the building and perhaps create more parking, but that’s not why the post office is closing.
According to the local news, the landlord says he never asked the Postal Service to leave. Instead, “the Postal Service made the decision not to remain at the site when faced with either putting on a new roof for the building or having the rent increased to pay for needed improvement costs.”
The landlord says that when he took over the property two and a half years ago, there was a month-to-month lease at the same monthly rent as when the lease was signed back in 1985. The lease said the landlord is responsible for improvements, but the current landlord didn’t want to make the investment in a new roof if the Postal Service wasn’t willing to pay more to cover the expense. (The possibility that the Postal Service would shut down operations probably weighed on his mind as well.) The Postal Service declined to pay for the new roof or to agree to a rent increase, and instead decided to close the office. That’s when the idea of tearing down the building for more parking came up.
There’s no mention in the local news about the Postal Service holding a community meeting to discuss the suspension or searching for an alternative location — steps in the suspension process as outlined in the Postal Service’s Postal Operations Manual. Customers learned of the closing from a notice posted on the door, and that seems to be about all there was to the process. Dresher will just have to learn to live without a post office.
Not to worry, though. There’s a post office just a couple of miles away in Fort Washington, open 9 to 5. Better yet, in nearby Willow Grove, there’s a UPS store, open 8:30 to 6:30, and a FedEx Copy and Print store, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A new appeal to the PRC: It’s been a while
The post office Tyner, Indiana, was closed last month, and an appeal was filed with the PRC last week. It’s been months since an appeal on a closing was submitted to the Commission, and the documents filed with the appeal as well as a few news items suggest that it may become an interesting story.
The post office in Tyner was suspended on June 18, 2011 (it's on a list the Postal Service gave the PRC in January 2012). That usually means there’s some emergency with the building or staffing, and it’s supposed to be temporary, until the situation is corrected. In the case of Tyner, though, it seems that the office wasn’t closed completely. While the window services were suspended, customers continued to receive mail in their p.o. boxes for several more months.
In July 2011, the Tyner post office appeared on the RAOI list of 3,700 post offices being studied for closure. Then on October 12, 2011, a notice was posted in the post office saying that residents had 60 days to comment on a proposal to permanently close the office, and many did submit comments.
In early November, with no notice to customers, the electric company shut off the power at the post office, so there were no lights or heat in the building, leaving box holders to fumble around in the dark. (This we learn from some comments left on an item in the Pilot News.)
On August 16, 2012, a notice was posted saying that effective September 27 there would no longer be post office box services available at the Tyner post office. As a replacement, the Postal Service said it would set up a cluster box outside the Tyner community building; for parcels, there will also be some parcel lockers. Those wishing to continue with a traditional post office box will need to travel over eight miles to the post office in Plymouth. On August 27, customers learned that access to post office boxes would end on September 12, rather than at the end of the month.
The August 16 notice appears to be the closest the Postal Service ever got to issuing a formal discontinuance notice. The appeals documents and the news reports say nothing about an actual “Final Determination” being posted, nothing stating, as a discontinuance notice is supposed to say, that “copies of all materials on which this Final Determination is based are available for public inspection at the (Facility Name) during normal office hours.” Perhaps most important, there’s nothing in the August notice about the community’s right to appeal to the PRC.
The closing has now been appealed to the PRC anyway. It's the first appeal in a long time. Due to the moratorium on closures that was in effect from December to May and the absence of virtually any discontinuances since May, there haven’t been a lot of closings to appeal.
It will be interesting to see what the Commission does with the Tyner appeal. Last year, the chances of winning a remand were less than one in ten, but nearly every decision came down to a two-to-two vote (the Commission was missing its fifth member). With the addition of Tony Hammond, there are now five commissioners, so tie votes won’t be happening, and there look to be some issues with the procedures used to shut down Tyner that may justify a remand. You’d think that with so few discontinuances being processed the Postal Service could at least get this one right.
Santa Monica fights back
The appeal on the Dresher post office isn’t the only one the PRC will be looking at. The New Deal post office in Santa Monica, California, is up for sale, and Congressman Henry Waxman is not happy about how the Postal Service is conducting the process. In a letter to the PRC appealing the decision to close the office and relocate retail services to a carrier annex, Waxman argues that the closure is actually a discontinuance, not a mere relocation. His letter cites the relevant passages in the code of federal regulations (39 CFR 241.3) and Handbook PO 101 that describe the procedures for a discontinuance — procedures that the Postal Service has not been following because it says the post office is not being discontinued, just relocated. (There’s more about the Santa Monica story on a “save our post office” website and Facebook page created by the community.)
We’ll see how things turn out this time around, but when the Postal Service’s decision to close and relocate the Venice post office was appealed to the PRC, the Commission dismissed the case, saying it didn’t have jurisdiction over relocations. In that case, only three commissioners weighed in — there were just four on the Commission at the time, and Chairman Ruth Goldway recused herself because she has a home in Venice. Perhaps with Congressman Waxman on the case and five commissioners making the decision, the PRC will take a new look at the relocation issue. (Or perhaps the Chairman will recuse herself again, since Santa Monica is right next door to Venice.)
The decision to close the Santa Monica post office, by the way, was announced in a notice dated August 17, 2012 — two weeks after the 15-day comments period ended. The speed with which the Postal Service made the decision, despite the fact that over a hundred people wrote comments opposing the move, made many in Santa Monica believe the decision was a done deal and it didn’t matter what the comments said.
Protest in Berkeley
On September 13, there was a meeting in Berkeley, California, about its historic post office, which was built in 1914. The Postal Service gave an interesting PowerPoint presentation explaining its financial condition (bad), the money it would save by closing the post office and relocating to a smaller space ($5 million over 10 years), and all the lovely ways old post offices have been repurposed (law offices, architectural firms, museums, B&Bs, etc.).
The Postal Service considered the meeting an official step in the process for closing and selling post offices, and it wanted to initiate the 15-day comment period at that very moment. Members of the Post Office Subcommittee of the Berkeley City Council, however, were fully informed on the rules about the process, and they pointed out a number of irregularities, so the Postal Service agreed to set up another meeting before beginning the comment period.
After the Postal Service’s presentation, the community had an opportunity to comment, and that they did. They sang a special version of “Please Mr. Postman," one resident said selling the post office “would be akin to selling off a redwood state park,” and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said they would “fight to the death.”
Harvey Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association, observed that selling historic post offices wouldn’t be necessary were it not for Congress and the health-care prefunding mandate, which is the real cause of the Postal Service’s financial problems. And behind everything, said Smith, behind the sales and manufactured financial crisis, was one goal, privatization of the Postal Service.
Gray Brechin, a professor at UC-Berkeley and another New Deal scholar, noted that the Postal Service’s real estate broker — CB Richard Ellis — was profiting from the sales and enriching the company’s Chairman of the Board, Richard C. Blum, who happens to be the husband of California senator Dianne Feinstein. Brechin deplored the fact that this “shocking conflict of interest” was being totally ignored by the media.
There’s a very good piece in the Daily Kos about the meeting, and another good story in the Berkeley Daily Planet. You can also hear a news report with audio from the meeting here; the post office report begins at about 28 minutes. Harvey Smith has an excellent editorial about the sale here; and Gray Brechin, here.
Drain problems in Christiansburg, VA
The post office in Christiansburg, Virginia, is a historic New Deal building that was erected in 1937. It’s listed on the National Register. According to the Waymarking website, the Postal Service planned to close the post office a few years ago and to relocate retail services to a larger, more modern facility outside of town, but local residents organized in protest and persuaded authorities to keep the downtown post office open. A new facility did get built, but the historic post office remained open — until last month, that is.
Details are scant at this point, but according to a brief item in the local news, the New Deal post office closed “due to structural problems with the building.” Some sort of “major drain project” must be completed before it can re-open, and the work won’t begin, says the Postal Service, until January. No word on why work can’t begin sooner or how long it will be before the office re-opens — if it ever does.
The news item says only this: "The Christiansburg Post Office that is now closed for repairs is not on any list for reduced hours or closure," said US Postal Service Spokesperson Cathy Yarosky. "Certainly not at this time."
That “certainly not at this time” has an ominous ring to it, especially when you consider that historic post offices like the those in Berekely, Santa Monica, and Christiansburg are going up for sale all across the country. There are over fifty of them that have been sold or listed for sale, and there are probably many others for which negotiations are going on behind the scenes so the listing is not appearing on the USPS-CBRE website of properties for sale.
Given that there’s a newer post office in town and that there was a previous push to close the downtown office, it’s very possible that citizens in Christiansburg will have to fight once again to keep their historic post office. This time around, the outcome may not be so happy.
Standing room in Northport, NY
On September 12, there was meeting about another New Deal post office, this one in Northport, New York. The American Legion Hall was packed, with standing room only, as citizens came together to express their concerns about the future of their post office. A panel of government officials was on hand to discuss the issue, but no one from the Postal Service. As Deputy Mayor Henry Tobin explained, he invited the Postal Service to attend but was told “it was premature” and they’d come at a later date.
Premature, perhaps, but on August 8, a USPS regional manager signed off on a plan to have the Postal Service’s real estate consulting firm — presumably CB Richard Ellis — arrange for an appraisal of the building. Then the Postal Service will decide whether or not to proceed with a sale and whether it will look for an alternative space to rent. At that time, there will be a community meeting with postal officials and a two-week comment period.
But by that time, as the citizens in Santa Monica can tell those in Northport, the decision will be a done deal. The building may not officially be for sale yet, but the folks in Northport can see the writing on the wall, and they’re doing what they can to stop the sale before the process goes any further. It may already be too late.
By the waters of Babylon
There used to be a beautiful historic post office in Babylon, New York, but it was sold long ago, and now it’s a restaurant called, naturally enough, the Post Office Café. The replacement post office was built in 1960, and at this point, it’s an historic building itself and eligible for the National Register, which uses the fifty-year mark as a general rule of thumb for eligibility.
Now it looks as though the Babylon post office will eventually be sold. The Postal Service says it's moving the twenty carriers who work out of Babylon over to West Babylon, which is typically a first step toward closing the post office. The Postal Service representative would only say that “there is no discussion on moving the retail unit/post office boxes in the near future.” The operative phrase there is “in the near future.”
Postmaster Jim Meads has also denied the rumor and explained that the Postal Service is just relocating the carriers. He says that to his knowledge the Post Office has no intention of selling and closing the building in Babylon.
But Peter Furgiuele, president of the Long Island chapter of the APWU, told Newsday that postal officials told him that the Babylon Post Office would eventually be closed and replaced with a smaller retail location. The mayor of Babylon is upset he hasn’t been told anything about a proposed move and he vows to fight it.
Quirks and hiccups in North Carolina
In addition to all the post office closings and the reductions in window hours, some 48 mail processing plants were consolidated this past summer in stage one of the Postal Service’s Network Rationalization plan to consolidate over 230 plants. The PRC will probably be issuing its advisory opinion on the plan this week, but the Postal Service couldn’t wait, and it made the change in service standards — slowing down first-class mail and periodicals — in July and started the consolidations in August.
In an effort to prevent implementation of the plan before the advisory opinion came out, the APWU filed a complaint with the PRC, but on September 10, the Commission dismissed the complaint, saying the law states that the Postal Service must request an advisory opinion before implementing a plan, not that it needs to wait to hear the opinion. Now that the change in service standards is already in place, the advisory opinion will seem somewhat anticlimactic and largely irrelevant, but it will undoubtedly be long, thorough, and interesting nonetheless.
One of the plants that got consolidated this past summer was the processing and delivery center in Hickory, North Carolina. The mail going through Hickory is now being processed in Wilkes, and the change is already causing delays in the mail.
Monica Coachman Robbs, the Postal Service corporate communications spokeswoman for the Greensboro and Mid-Carolinas Districts, told the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, “There have been some recent quirks in getting mail to our post office box customers in North Wilkesboro at the time to which they are accustomed.”
A postal service employee noted that mail is being delivered to the post offices an average of one hour later each morning, which may not seem like much but it’s causing delays for all of the post offices and delivery routes.
While Ms. Robbs acknowledged that the plant consolidations are causing some “hiccups,” the “good news” is that postal management is working on the problems.
The Wilkes Journal-Patriot can attest to the problems. The plant consolidations have been causing delays in the delivery of its newspapers. And as they say, when a newspaper is delivered late, it’s not news, it’s history.
(Photo credits: Save the Berkeley post office; ad for UPS Small Business Solutions; Post offices in Gadsden, SC; Dresher, PA [Evan Kalish]; Tyner, IN; Christiansburg, VA; downtown post office and carrier annex in Santa Monica [Evan Kalish]; lobby of the post office in Berkeley, CA; Northport, NY [Evan Kalish]; Post Office Café in Babylon, NY; Babylon’s 1960 post office [Evan Kalish]; Hickory NC P &DF [Evan Kalish].)