Did the Postal Service forget it owns the historic Lindsborg post office?

November 15, 2014

The Postal Service has closed the post office in Lindsborg, Kansas, because of concerns about the air quality.  Apparently some black mold was discovered in the basement.  That’s not too surprising considering that it’s an old building that dates back to 1936.

The news reports don’t mention the phrase, but presumably the office was closed for an “emergency suspension.”  Under the legal provisions for such suspensions, the Postal Service can close an office on very short notice, without consulting the community. 

And that’s just what happened in Lindsborg.  Customers arrived at the post office one day last week and found the place closed.  There was just a cryptic message posted on the door explaining that due to "safety concerns" postal operations had been transferred to Salina, over 20 miles away.  At least one customer complained about the lack of advance notice and asked why the Postal Service "didn't know about this way before."

There are three other post offices less than ten miles from Lindsborg where customers can do their postal business.  The more immediate concern was the hundred or so box holders in Lindsborg.  In order to provide boxes to these customers, the Postal Service is going to install a cluster box unit in front of the post office.

There’s nothing very unusual about the Postal Service closing a post office over mold issues.  It’s happened several times in the past, and usually the office reopens after the landlord takes care of the problem.

And that’s pretty much what one would expect in this case.  The notice taped the door of the Lindsborg post office says just that:

“The Postal Service is having the air inside the Lindsborg Post Office tested.  If the air quality is determined to be unsafe, the landlord of the Lindsborg Post Office will be notified so remediation can be made.  Once it is safe, the Postal Service plans to reopen the Post Office.”

What’s curious about this notice is that the landlord is the Postal Service itself. 

According to the most recent Owned Facilities Report, which was just updated a couple of months ago, the Postal Service owns the post office at 125 E. Lincoln Street in Lindsborg, Kansas.  In fact, it has owned the building since it was constructed back in 1936. 

It’s not as if this is just any post office.  It's a historic New Deal post office, it contains a 1938 mural entitled "Smoky River" by Birger Sandzen, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.  (The 1989 nomination form is here, with the photos here.)

Now, it’s possible that the notice taped to the door of the post office was just boilerplate, and someone in postal management mistakenly used some text that was intended for when a leased property is suspended.  But that wouldn’t explain why the Postal Service did not inform the news media that it would be taking care of the mold problem itself as soon as possible.

The fact that the Postal Service is going to spend money installing a cluster box unit in front of the post office suggests that the closure will be more than temporary.  It's entirely possible that the Lindsborg Post Office will never reopen and that the Postal Service will eventually put the building on the market.  Perhaps that's the plan behind the mold issue.

In the meantime, the Postal Service will be notifying the Postal Service that the mold problem must be corrected before the Postal Service can reopen the Lindsborg Post Office.

(Photo credits: Lindsborg, KS post office and Birger Sandzen’s “Smoky River" mural, by Jimmy Emerson)

WaPo op-ed hacked by dysfunctional status quo

November 12, 2014

It's business as usual at the Washington Post.  Just as it has done many times over the past few years, the Post's editorial staff is calling for more cuts to postal services and more downsizing of the infrastructure, all in the name of "reform."

Today's Post has an editorial entitled "Delivering a solvent Postal Service, the bipartisan way."  The Post endorses the Carper-Coburn bill and its mandate to close facilities and cut services, and then blames “interest-group politics” for opposing these much-needed reforms.  According to the Post, it's postal unions, rural states, and large-scale commercial mailers who are “furiously” trying to protect “the dysfunctional status quo.” 

Not surprisingly, the Post expresses support for the Postal Service’s plan to close 82 more mail processing plants over the coming months.  To make its case, the Post describes these plants as “inefficient mail-processing facilities.”  But the Post provides no evidence for why these plants are “inefficient.”   

There’s actually a considerable amount of evidence showing that it would be more efficient for the Postal Service to maintain these plants rather than close them.

When the Postal Regulatory Commission did an Advisory Opinion in 2012 analyzing the Postal Service’s Network Rationalization plan to close about 260 plants, the Commission concluded that it would be more efficient if only some of the plants were closed.  After an exhaustive analysis conducted by the PRC staff and outside experts, the Commission found that closing some plants would be beneficial.  Closing all of the plants on the list, however, would be counter-productive because it would necessitate ending overnight delivery for almost all First-Class mail, which in turn could cause a considerable amount of damage in terms of lost revenue.

How deep the losses would be was hard to say, however, because the market research done on the question was so problematic.  The Postal Service commissioned a market research survey that showed that mail volumes would decline precipitously if the mail were slowed down as proposed.  The losses would be so significant, in fact, that the closures could end up losing money in the end.  The Postal Service buried the survey and commissioned a second survey, which produced more palatable results. 

In reviewing the two surveys, the PRC could not come up with a reasonable estimate for how much the plan would save.  If everything went perfectly, the consolidations could save over $2 billion a year, as the Postal Service was claiming, but the plan could also end up breaking even or even losing a half billion dollars a year.  In the worst-case scenario, it might even end up losing almost $1.5 billion a year.  (For more on the numbers, see this previous post.)

In the end, the PRC recommended that the Postal Service proceed with phase one of the closures (which the Postal Service had already begun to do before the Advisory Opinion was issued), but hold off on phase two.  The Postal Service is ignoring the advice, and it's going to begin closing the plants early next year.  Postal workers across the country will be protesting the closures on Thursday of this week.

Village Post Offices, part 2: More debut, more questions too

Nov. 10, 2014

In a previous post, "It takes a Village Post Office, but for what?" we questioned the financial rationale for VPOs and asked why many of them were now being placed in densely populated areas.  Now there’s more reason to pose such questions.

A couple of days ago, an article in The Press Democrat touted the "debut" of some new Village Post Offices in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.  A couple of them are right in the heart of Santa Rosa, where there are seven or eight post offices, all of them operating at regular hours, some with Saturday hours as well.  This map of Santa Rosa shows VPOs in red and the nearby post offices in blue.

The Postal Service has been putting VPOs in other urban areas, and California seems to be a popular location.  Nearly a third of the 74 VPOs created in August and September 2014 were in California.  In San Diego, where there about 25 or 30 post offices, the Postal Service has set up a half dozen VPOs. In Sacramento, there are now five VPOs, surrounded by 16 real post offices, as you can see on this map.

It takes a Village Post Office, but for what?

November 2, 2014

Almost every day over the past year, there’s been a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new Village Post Office.  There are hundreds of stories in local newspapers about these grand openings.  The Postal Service clearly thinks that Village Post Offices play an important role in its vision of the future.  But it’s not exactly clear what function they really serve.

Just this past week, the Postal Service opened a Village Post Office in the Creekside Market and Grill in Miracle, Kentucky; the Summit Mart convenience store in Mount Summit, Indiana; Ferrante Upholstering in New Beaver, Pennsylvania; and Knoll Brothers Retail (also a convenience store) in Kingsford Heights, Indiana.

At this point, there are over 760 VPOs in operation.  Nearly all of them just sell stamps and give out flat-rate boxes.  Despite the name, they're not really “post offices."  The Postal Service chose to call them that because they were originally intended to replace real post offices.  The Postal Service wanted small town communities to feel that while they might be losing their post office, they would be getting a good-old-fashioned “Village Post Office” instead.  There would still be a warm place in town to meet and greet the neighbors.

Now the Postal Service says that VPOs are not intended to replace post offices.  Rather, they provide some added convenience to customers who can’t get to the post office when it’s open — a common problem now that POStPlan has reduced hours at nearly 13,000 post offices.

But one can’t help but wonder if the Postal Service doesn’t have some other motive besides “customer convenience.”  After all, if customer convenience were really a priority, why reduce post office hours for 13,000 communities?  And what about customer convenience in the more than 12,000 communities that aren’t getting a VPO to supplement the reduced hours at the post office? 

The VPO program is actually about something other than customer convenience.  It’s part of the Postal Service's effort to redirect retail traffic from brick-and-mortar post offices to "alternate channels."  These include USPS.com, stamps-on-consignment (at over 50,000 pharmacies, banks, and retailers), and pack-and-ship stores in the Approved Shippers program — like the 1,500 Staples stores where the Postal Service will soon be found and the 2,000 Walmarts that will soon have a Goin Postal shipping store that sells USPS products. 

By bringing in more business through alternate channels and less business at post offices, the Postal Service can cut window hours and save some money.  That translates into fewer union-wage jobs for postal clerks.  Plus, with customers getting more accustomed to doing postal business at private retailers, it will also be easier for the Postal Service to close post offices when the time is right.  Ultimately, directing customers to Staples, Walmart, or a VPO represents another a step in the privatization of the retail network.     

That this is the Postal Service’s goal becomes clearer when you look at the economics of VPOs, where they’re being located, and how the rationale for them has evolved.

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