Relocation, relocation, relocation: The new M.O. for closing post offices

December 18, 2013

The Postal Service may no longer be talking about closing thousands of post offices, but it has been busy “relocating” them.  In dozens of cities across the country, a downtown post office is being closed and the building, often a historic landmark, is being sold.  According to the Postal Service, however, the post office isn't actually "closing."  Because a new, smaller office will be opened somewhere else in the community, the Postal Service says it is just "relocating retail services."  

The distinction may seem just a matter of semantics, but it allows the Postal Service to go through a quick relocation procedure, which has minimal requirements for notification, public comment, and appeals, instead of a lengthy, complicated discontinuance procedure.  In taking the easy route to closing post offices this way, the Postal Service is causing all kinds of problems.

Complaints about the relocations have prompted the USPS Office of Inspector General to initiate an audit investigation.  One of the aims of the audit is "to look specifically at whether the Postal Service is providing affected customers enough information about relocation plans to enable those customers to fully understand and react to their potential impact.” 

The OIG is also in the middle of another audit that involves these relocations.  This one, which began last summer, is looking into the disposal and preservation of historic postal properties.  The two audits are related because the Postal Service typically replaces the historic post office with a new retail facility elsewhere in town. 

The audit on relocations is due out in January.  If you’ve had experience with a relocation process, your input would be very valuable.  You can still submit comments on the OIG's website here.

The audit on historic properties was initially due out last October, but it’s been postponed until next year, perhaps as late as March.  The only explanation for the delay the OIG has offered is the government shutdown, but that lasted only two weeks, which wouldn’t quite explain a delay of several months.  Perhaps the investigation is proving more complicated than the OIG expected.  

There's also some mystery about why the announcement on the historic properties audit keeps appearing and disappearing on the OIG website, but an archived version with some of the initial comments can be found here.  While you're waiting for the OIG's report, you can take a look at my report to the OIG on the preservation and disposal of historic post offices, which can be found here.

Canada gets cluster-boxed: Why it can’t happen here

December 15, 2013

Canada Post announced this week that over the next five years it would be converting five million urban residences from door delivery to cluster box units (CBUs), also known euphemistically as Community Mailboxes (CMBs).  Along with other cost-cutting initiatives, like consolidating processing plants, closing post offices, and reducing employee benefits, the Canada plan will supposedly save $700 to $900 million a year and involve eliminating 6,000 to 8,000 jobs. 

The news that Canada would get cluster-boxed was greeted with applause by Congressman Darrell Issa, whose Postal Reform Act (H.R. 2748) mandates a similar conversion for the U.S., with some thirty million residences and businesses being required to shift to cluster boxes over the next ten years.  There’s a similar provision in the Senate bill (S. 1486), but it’s more moderate — it requires a conversion program but shifts customers only on a voluntary basis, with no target numbers.

The Postmaster General has also expressed interest in switching to more cluster boxes.  In January 2013, he said, “We’ll be looking at some centralized delivery, rolling that out across the country – no major push, but starting to move on that.”  

Over the past year, there have been many instances of customers getting converted to cluster boxes, often on a less-than-voluntary basis.  The Postal Service has been using a variety of explanations for making the conversions, like protecting letter carriers from unchained dogs, and it’s been sending out misleading letters to customers telling them they need to change modes of delivery when in fact they don’t.

A couple of weeks ago, the National Association of Letter Carriers put out a news release noting that it had “become aware of an effort by the Postal Service in different parts of the country to convince customers to agree to change their mode of delivery to cluster box or centralized delivery.”  In order to make sure carriers and customers know their rights, the announcement reviews all the regulations, which include a requirement that customers must agree voluntarily to a change in the mode of delivery.

Despite all the signs that the U.S. is trending toward more cluster boxes, we are a long way from mass conversions.  Many politicians and commentators will point to Canada as a model to be imitated and a harbinger of things to come, but the United States will see a mass conversion to cluster boxes at about the same time we get a Canadian-style healthcare system.  

 

Learning from Canada

Time Magazine has already come out with an editorial arguing that "we can learn something from Canada."  Time says that switching to cluster boxes is "an essential step for the post office to remain self-sustaining in a digital age.  For Americans there should be only one reaction: envy."  

Time puts the blame for the fact that we're not following the Canadian lead on Congress, which keeps the Postal Service tethered "like a dog on a leash."  

But Time has it wrong.  Current law permits the Postal Service to change a customer’s mode of delivery on its own.  Mass conversions don't require Congressional approval.  The reason our postal system hasn't resorted to this particular austerity move is that it's a terrible idea.  

The Postal Service has long recognized that there are many problems with changing over to cluster boxes, not the least of which is angering customers, especially if you do it without their permission.  As one person commented about the Canada Post announcement, "Nothing gets people more riled up than having something they are accustomed to taken from them by the government."

So while Canada may be ready to make the switch to cluster boxes, and while Congressman Issa and Time Magazine may be applauding the move, there’s not much chance that it will happen in this country anytime soon.  It’s one thing to introduce cluster boxes for new residences and businesses, but converting the mode of delivery for millions of existing customers is another story.  

The Postal Service tries to pull a fast one in Harlem

December 12, 2013

BY CHUCK ZLATKIN

The federal regulations on relocating post offices don't put a lot of demands on the Postal Service — a public hearing, a short comment period, a week's notice before the meeting, and not much more.  In many cases, the Postal Service follows the letter of the law while completely disregarding the spirit, which is simply to give communities an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.  What happened in Harlem this week is a prefect example.

A few days ago, the Postal Service posted an undated notice at the College Station post office in Harlem saying that it would give a presentation about a proposal to relocate retail services to a “yet-to-be-determined new location within the same ZIP code area.”  The notice was posted in an area of the post office where you would be unlikely to see it unless you went looking for it.  The Postal Service is also supposed to send a news release to the local media, but there's nothing about the meeting in the news.

The presentation was scheduled for Thursday evening, December 12, at a meeting of the Economic Development Committee of Manhattan Community Board 10, which represents Central Harlem.  This is a regularly scheduled meeting of a committee, not the entire 50-member Community Board, and while it’s open to the public, not many usually attend.  The room where it’s held has about twenty seats.  

As one can see from the agenda for Thursday's EDC meeting, the future of the historic College Station post office would have been sandwiched in between license applications and renewals for a pizza place, a coffee cafe, a lounge, and a taqueria.

The APWU in New York was notified about the meeting on Monday of this week.  I am the Legislative and Political Director
of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, APWU, and I immediately knew what was going on.  The Postal Service was trying to slip one by the Harlem community.

Harlem's College Station post office may be sold and "relocated"

December 9, 2011

The Postal Service has announced plans to close and sell another historic post office.  The College Station post office on 140th Street in in Harlem was built under the New Deal, and it’s been serving the neighborhood since 1937.  It looks like 2014 may be its last year of operation.    

As usual, the Postal Service says it plans to open a replacement facility somewhere in the neighborhood, so the closure is classified as a “relocation” and hence not subject to the stringent public notification and participation requirements of a regular discontinuance. 

The Postal Service’s real estate specialist Joseph Mulvey, who has overseen numerous such relocations in the Northeast, is once again running the show in New York.  He has arranged to speak about the College Station relocation at a meeting of the Manhattan Community Board later this week.  That’s the only opportunity the public is likely to have for a face-to-face meeting with postal officials. 

The meeting will be held on Thursday, December 12, at 6:30 p.m.  The Postal Service’s public notice is not dated, so it’s not clear when elected officials and College Station customers were told about the meeting.  But it was only today that the APWU got an email about the planned relocation — just three days before the meeting. 

[UPDATE: After being notified that the meeting might be the only opportunity for the public to meet with postal representatives, the Community Board crossed the USPS off its agenda.]

Very few people attend community board meetings, and it will be difficult getting the word out to the community on such short notice.  As the Community Alert from the union says, “The Postal Service is piggy backing this important issue as part of an obscure meeting that no one attends.”

Plus, the meeting isn’t being held in the ZIP code area served by the College Station (10030).  Instead, it’s being held fifteen blocks away, at 215 West 125th Street, which will make it difficult for seniors and others to even get there.

The union is encouraging community residents and business owners to attend the meeting and to protest the downsizing of the post office to a new, smaller location.  That location is yet-to-be-determined, so the meeting and the public comment period won’t be able to address any issues the new location might present. 

That’s pretty much the standard M.O. for the Postal Service these days.  It has approved numerous relocations — the Bronx, Berkeley, Stamford, and many others — without even identifying the new location.  Over the past couple of years, the Postal Service has gone through this relocation procedure in over seventy communities (a list is here).  In most of these instances, the Postal Service has yet to close the post office and relocate to a new space; in most of them, the new location hasn't even been found. 

But the Postal Service likes to get the legal requirements of the procedure out of the way, and then go looking for a new location and, if it owns the building, a buyer.  That's not really what the federal regulations are supposed to accomplish.  They're intended to give the community an opportunity to have input on the new location and the future of the historic building.  But the Postal Service has been giving lip service to the regulations and pretty much doing whatever it wants, despite a lot of criticism.

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