November 17, 2011
Yesterday, the Postal Regulatory Commission rejected three more appeals to save post offices — in Minneapolis, NC; Chillicothe, IA; and Pilot Grove, IA. But the PRC finally ruled in favor of a community seeking to save its post office. The ruling on Innis, Louisiana, “remands” the “Final Determination” to close the post office back to the Postal Service for further consideration. That may or may not save the Innis post office, but it could be a sign that momentum is shifting at the PRC. Aside from PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway, who has dissented on a few cases*, the Commissioners had shown few signs that they were prepared to reject a Postal Service decision to close a post office.
When the Postal Service issues a Final Determination to close an office, the community can appeal to the PRC. The PRC can’t overturn the decision, but it can “remand” the decision and tell the Postal Service to take another look and provide more evidence if it wants to proceed with the closing. Recently, the PRC has been very reluctant to exercise even this limited power.
While orders to remand were not uncommon back in the 1980s and 1990s, they've become rare over the past decade or so. In 2000, there was the Roanoke, West Virginia decision; in 2006, the Observatory Finance Station (Pittsburgh, PA); in 2009, the decisions on Hacker Valley, WV and Cranberry, PA, both of which involved using improper "emergency suspension" procedures; and in 2010 there was the case of the suspended Rentiesville, Oklahoma post office, which actually closed in 1998. That's about it for successful appeals since 2000.
Over the past few months, the PRC had ruled on some ten appeals, and in every case it either affirmed the decision, effectively closing the post office, or dismissed the case. The causes for dismissals have varied. In a couple of cases, it was because the Postal Service hadn’t definitively closed the post office yet, as in Still Pond MD, where the post office has been closed under an emergency suspension but not formally discontinued. In a couple of cases, the Postal Service actually changed its mind and withdrew the Final Determination notice — more on that a little later.
For a while, it looked as if the PRC was going to affirm every closing decision, and one had to wonder, what would it take for the Commissioners to rule in favor of a community trying to save its post office? Chairman Goldway has dissented several times, arguing that the Postal Service’s case was flawed, but her fellow commissioners, aside from expressing reservations in a few concurring opinions, have shown few signs that they were ready to rule against the Postal Service.
Then yesterday the Postal Regulatory Commission remanded the decision to close the post office in Innis, Louisiana, back to the Postal Service. The Innis decision may be a major breakthrough. It’s worth taking a closer look at the case, since the ruling may help other communities craft their appeals cases. It may also be a sign that the PRC is looking more critically at the Postal Service’s decision-making process, which bears not only on appeals cases but the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI). The Advisory Opinion on the RAOI plan to close up to 3,650 post offices should be coming out in mid-December, hopefully before Christmas, as we learned yesterday in a public hearing held by the PRC. (The podcast is here.)
The petitioners appealing the Innis decision argued that the Postal Service did not sufficiently consider the effects of closing the post office on the community, and they pointed to erroneous estimates provided by the Postal Service on the potential for population and economic growth in Innis. They also argued that the Postal Service had not given sufficient consideration to the closing’s impact on postal services. For example, there are 89 post office boxes in Innis, but room for only 56 at the post office where Innis customers are being directed. The neighboring post offices are also described as “located at cross roads in the middle of nowhere,” whereas Innis is a bona fide community. The PRC ruling found merit in these arguments, observing in its analysis that “the Commission cannot conclude that the Postal Service has given adequate consideration to the closing of the Innis post office on the community.”
The appeal also claimed the Postal Service’s estimate of cost savings was flawed. Innis had been without a postmaster since 2008, and revenues were pretty low and declining over the past three years. But the petitioners argued that the revenue declines were due at least partly to the fact that customers were taking their business elsewhere because of the “subpar performance” of the Office-in-Charge, who was eventually removed from the position.
According to the financial analysis, the Postal Service will save the employee salaries and benefits ($33,404) and annual rent ($2,400). The Postal Service did not figure in additional costs for the carriers because they already cover the territory, nor did it consider the loss in revenue from post office boxes that don’t move to another post office. The PRC observed that “the economic study should have included a more accurate analysis of the additional costs for rural delivery to the customers affected.”
Finally, the community proposed an alternate plan that involved closing two adjacent post offices in other communities, and the Postal Service seemed to like that idea, but then it was dropped with no explanation. The PRC felt that “having recognized possible merit in the alternative,” the Postal Serviced should have offered “an explanation for rejecting that alternative.”
Overall, it’s not quite clear why the Innis appeal was much stronger than many others that the PRC has rejected, like the appeal for the post office in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, and Akron, Ohion. But it’s a welcome sign that the tide may be turning at the PRC, at least a little.
It wasn’t all good news at the PRC yesterday. The Commissioners affirmed the Postal Service’s decision to close the post offices in Minneapolis, North Carolina; Chillicothe, Iowa; and Pilot Grove, Iowa. Those post offices will now close, although it’s not clear if they will benefit by the suspension on closings that goes into effect on Friday of this week, which would at least keep them open through the holidays.
The vast majority of appeals are still open cases, and their number just keeps increasing in a totally unprecedented fashion. Here are some materials on the history of appeals:
November 17, 2011
There's an excellent piece in Time.com today entitled "How the U.S. Postal Service Fell Apart," by Josh Sanburn. Unlike most articles in the mainstream media, this one takes a thoughtfully balanced approach to the story. Postmaster General Donahoe is there to provide the Postal Service’s view, but there are also interviews and a narrative line that tell another side of the story.
Sanburn explains that the Postal Service is not in financial straits simply because of the Internet — the usual line that comes out of L'Enfant Plaza and that gets repeated in every media report — but rather because of the "toxic combination" of several additional factors, like the poor economy and congressional mandates on retirement and health benefit funds. The article also explains how closing thousands of post offices will have virtually no impact on solving the Postal Service’s budget crisis.
What’s best about the article, though, is the way it shows some appreciation for the postal system, something sorely missing in most news articles, which tend to paint the Postal Service as "irrelevant" and "obsolete," a doomed "dinosaur" headed for extinction, inevitably going the way of the Pony Express.
“It wouldn't be far-fetched to argue that the postal service has been the most important institution in our country's history,” writes Sanburn. The Founding Fathers thought the post office was important enough to include in the Constitution, the postal system delivered newspapers that helped keep people informed during the early years of the new nation, the Postal Service will do amazing things to get the mail delivered (like using mules, boats, and snowmobiles), and it still gets a letter anywhere you want for just 44 cents. The Postal Service has also provided jobs, thousands and thousands of them, and for a long time, the postal service was the largest public-sector employer in the country.
Sanburn goes back to the wildcat postal workers strike in the late 1960s to explain how the Department of the Post Office got turned into the US Postal Service in 1970. That’s basically when an essential government institution was transformed into a quasi-government entity that has been pushed to act more and more “like a business.”
The desire to see the Postal Service as nothing but a business now threatens the Postal Service itself, and many of its recent actions — like planning to close thousands of post offices — seem downright self-destructive. The Postmaster General is quoted in the article as saying that after it finishes with the 3,650 post offices now under closure study, the Postal Service will look at closing many more — a total of some 15,000 post offices — half the country's post offices.
If that were to happen, it would basically gut the Postal Service, prepare the way for privatization, and mean the end of one of the country's most valuable institutions.
It’s an interesting article. Check it out here.
(Photo credit: Mailmen starting their rounds at Christmas time, 1955, in front of the New York City main post office, now sold.)
November 15, 2011
Yesterday postal workers and neighbors fought back against the United States Postal Service over its plan to close the mail processing facility in Roanoke, Virginia. Roanoke.com has the story.
Note that according to the TV report, the District Manager told the crowd that over the last ten years, first-class mail volume has dropped 50%. But there were 104 billion pieces of first-class in 2000, and 78 billion in 2010. That's a drop of 25%. Where did the DM come up with his number? Out of thin air?
November 15, 2011
The Postal Service cites declining revenues over the past few years and a reduction in workload as the reasons for closing the Clements post office. But both those factors are basically the same thing, and they are primarily due to the recession and therefore temporary. The real reason is that the post office is running at a deficit, and not a very big one at that.
The post office brings in about $51,000 and it costs about $61,000 to operate. And that’s using the Postal Service’s method for calculating the revenues. It only includes postage from walk-in customers and doesn’t consider the value of processing and delivering mail. As for the social and economic value of the post office to the town or the costs citizens will have to bear in traveling to another post office, the Postal Service doesn’t even begin to consider them.
Forget about the fact that the Postal Service is not permitted to close a small rural post office for running at a deficit. The Postal Service doesn’t care, and it has found a variety of ways to get around the law. Like saying that there are other postal facilities nearby (even though nearby may mean more than ten miles, as in the case of Clements) or there’s a vacancy in the postmaster position (a vacancy it chose not to fill) or there’s a problem with the lease (usually avoidable). There’s only one reason all these post offices are closing — they’re running at deficits. Otherwise, why bother?
As always, there was a community meeting in Clements, and everyone spoke up, but what they realized, says the city clerk, is that their suggestions were not being considered. The community suggested reducing the hours on the post office, but the Postal Service said no (even though the Postmaster General is now considering this alternative). There was talk of a village post office, but one person who was interested in hosting a VPO never heard back from the Postal Service about it. There were probably other places a VPO might have been located — there are 26 businesses in town — but that’s not happening. The community even offered to run the post office on a volunteer basis — no go, said the Postal Service. Residents wanted mailboxes in front of their homes, but they’re getting cluster boxes.
The lease on the post office runs until June 30, 2014, but as of last Thursday, the owner of the building had not even been informed by the Postal Service it would no longer be leasing the building. Perhaps that’s because the Postal Service will be covering the cost of the remaining time on the lease. It’s just $4,158 a year, so that’s only $11,000 in owed rent. No big deal for a $70 billion a year operation like the USPS — it’s just the savings on closing the post office for a year.
One more thing: Think the Postal Service is worried about people with disabilities? The mayor of Clements is wheelchair bound.
The city clerk said that “the entire process was not handled very well,” and she hopes the Postal Service has learned something so other communities don’t have to experience what Clements did. Don’t count on it. We’re going to be reading this story over and over and over again.
(Photo credit: Clements Pine street — the post office is in between the church and the Redwood Electric Co-op, photo by Debora Drower. Details on the story, as reported by Troy Krause for the Redwood Falls Gazette.com, and Fritz Busch for The Journal.)
November 13, 2011
Another week of post office closing news — rallies to protest the downsizing, briefs filed at the PRC, road trips to visit threatened post offices, complaints about the closing process, a letter from Ralph Nader to the Postmaster General asking for empathy, and more on the Village Post Office, a concept that just won't go away. Here’s a wrap-up of some of the week’s news.
Rallies to save the Post Office and the Postal Service
Baltimore, MD: On Sunday, Nov. 13, there was a rally to “Save Your Local Post Office” taking place at McKeldin Park in downtown Baltimore (Inner Harbor Pratt & Light Streets). “Bring your family, your wife, your son or daughter, father or mother,” said the announcement. There are ten post offices in Baltimore on the closing list, including the historic Towson post office on Chesapeake Avenue.
Portland, Oregon: On Nov. 7, the National Association of Letter Carriers held rallies at several post offices in Portland, Oregon, to protest five-day delivery, massive post office closings, and workforce cuts. One of the rallies took place at the Piedmont post office, photo below, and more images & info, here.
Bronx, NY: On Monday, Nov. 14, there will be a rally in front of the Einstein post office in the Bronx, New York, at 8:30 a.m. Co-op City in the Bronx is facing the loss of two post offices, the Einstein and the Dreiser Loops, which together serve some 55,000 residents of Co-op City, the largest NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) in the United States. Those two post offices mean a lot to this community. It's very difficult for residents to get to the main post office, so they depend on these stations, which serve their immediate locales. The Einstein Loop is hemmed in by highways, and closing its post office would mean the end of a walk to the post office. The Dreiser Loop is not far from the main post office, but it's across a large boulevard. This is a middle-income neighborhood with mostly retirees and seniors, the kind of people who walk to the post office, and who are most vulnerable when a post office closes.
Sparks fly at the PRC: The Postal Regulatory Commission is heading down the homestretch on its Advisory Opinion about the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), the Postal Service plan to close 3,650 post offices. Over the past ten days, both sides have submitted “initial briefs” summarizing their arguments and “reply briefs” critiquing the other side’s initial briefs. The main issue is whether or not the RAOI complies with Title 39 and the PAEA, but that takes in a lot of other matters, like the method used by the Postal Service to select post offices for closure study — which seems biased toward picking small rural post offices — and problems that have already emerged with how the closing process is being conducted. Because the PRC conducts its study as a quasi-legal process — with witnesses, testimonies, and cross-examinations — the credibility of testimony becomes significant, and the lawyers naturally go at each other’s witnesses with considerable enthusiasm. Still, it was disconcerting seeing just how vehement the ad hominem attacks got this week. Even the chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, was not spared when the Postal Service made its case by attacking all of the witnesses against the RAOI and just about everyone else in sight. You can check out the briefs on the PRC website, here, and there's an interview with Goldway here.
PRC says no to Pimmit: The number of appeal cases at the PRC just keeps growing — sixteen dockets have been opened since the first of November (though a few of the appeals were premature since the post office hadn't yet been issued a final determination). The PRC said no on Thursday to a request that the Pimmit branch, Falls Church VA, remain open while the appeal was being considered. That was disturbing and confusing because the PRC has long maintained (and reiterated in its decision) that stations and branches should get the same closing process as a main post office, and that usually meant allowing offices to stay open during appeals. The two commissioners who voted to allow the post office to close on Friday did not provide a rationale for their decision. Chairman Goldway dissented.
Post office road trip in Kansas: In Kansas, Marci Penner, director of Kansas Sampler Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving rural culture, declared November 9 as a day to "Put Your Stamp On It." Marci and her assistant director WenDee LaPlant took a road trip down K-99 to visit seven of the 152 Kansas post offices on the closing list. They also bought $381.56 worth of stamps to support the post office. Check out their you-tube videos, here and here.
Going Postal, on the road again: Evan Kalish, intrepid road tripper of Going Postal fame, has been slipping away from grad school for weekend drives to photograph post offices in Pennsylvania and, most recently, Maryland. He braved the nor’easter in early November to get images of rural PA and almost got stuck in Punxsutawney like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” It was worth it, though — he got a picture of Punxsutawney Phil the mailman. Last week Evan put together a great post on carrier annexes, and this week, all you ever wanted to know about postmarks for Veteran’s Day (11/11/11).
Historic Colorado post office threatened: In Ward, Colorado, the group “Citizens to Save the Historic Ward Post Office” is protesting the way the Postal Service has been conducting the closing process. They’ve complained that the USPS would not schedule the community meeting at a time when most customers would be able to attend, and when they asked for financial information about the post office, they were told they’d need to file an FOIA request. The group says the Proposal to Study is filled with inaccuracies about the historic significance of the post office, the number of businesses and nonprofits in the area, and the disadvantages of proposed alternate service to customers — the nearest post office is a half-hour drive away on mountain roads. “In essence,” says one member of the group, “the USPS has totally ignored the community, legislators, historic societies, as well as disregarding rights of citizens. . . This whole closing process is a SHAM.”
Emergency in Death Valley: In Death Valley, California, the post office faces closure, and the community has had its meeting with postal officials. But it looks like they may not make it through the full discontinuance process because the Postal Service is apparently preparing for an emergency suspension. The postmistress is gone, and there’s a temporary postmaster filling in, but the Postal Service may put the post office under emergency suspension for lack of personnel to run it. This doesn’t sound like an “emergency,” and someone at the community meeting said there was talk that the Postal Service was planning to close the post office even before the postmistress left her position.
Another AMP hearing and concerns about national security: The Public hearing on the planned closure of the Williamsport P&DC is scheduled for Thursday, November 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Genetti Hotel in Williamsport. Steve Lunger, President, APWU Local #2007, says the closure would slow down the mail for entire north-central tier of Pennsylvania (169-- and 177-- zip codes), which would severely impact local newspapers and mailers. Lunger is also concerned that cutting the processing network will have a dangerously negative effect on national security. Consolidating away 250 plants — and running the remaining plants 24 hours a day — makes the system more vulnerable to a wide variety of potential problems, like a failure of the power grid, a Katrina-like disaster, a cyber attack, or a terrorist attack. In view of these vulnerabilities, Lunger has asked President Obama to issue an Executive Order to direct the USPS to maintain most, if not all, of its current network.
The Village Post Office, still being touted: A couple of weeks ago the Postmaster General backed off the Village Post Office concept as an alternative to actual village post offices, but apparently not everyone got the memo because the idea continues to come up at community meetings. In Dola, Ohio, for example, the USPS rep told the small audience that had gathered on Wednesday for its community meeting that the VPO was an option and explained how it could sell Forever stamps and prepaid shipping boxes. The USPS official overseeing the post office closings in the Boston area recently told a reporter for the Watertown Patch that alternatives to the traditional post office branch included a "village post office," which often sits in supermarkets, drug stores or other locations.
In Lake George, Minnesota, there's a historic log cabin post office that is one of the world’s smallest post office. According to the Bemidji Pioneer, at the community meeting to discuss closing the post office, the manager of post office operations told folks that one option was to do postal business with the carrier, and another was the Village Post Office. Next door to the post office is a convenience store where a VPO could be placed, but the owners didn’t attend the meeting. The Postal Service manager apparently also informed the audience that the Postal Service is in trouble "because strong labor unions and the snail’s pace of legislative change are hampering the ability to make quick and sweeping changes to right the ship."
Ralph Nader writes the PMG: Ralph Nader wrote a letter to Postmaster General Donahoe (Nov. 9, 2011) in which he reminded the PMG that "the Postal Service is a public institution with public requirements of service unique to its historic mission . . . The USPS is not just another business.” Nader also asked the PMG to issue a report on exactly what the Postal Service has been doing to expand revenues and really “sell postal services vigorously.” Nader also urged the PMG to “empathize deeply with the plight of rural people and the loss of the physical federal presence of the local post offices in their communities. People in rural communities have relied on them for a long, long time. Build them up, rather than close them down. Your imagination and ideas should rejuvenate the USPS!”
Nader also called the Postmaster General’s attention to another letter that had been sent to him in October by the Appleseed Network, encouraging the Postal Service to resurrect the Postal Savings System. The program, which operated from 1911 to 1966, offered federally insured savings accounts to the unbanked, rural residents, and low-income wage earners, as an alternative to the “less prudent — and frequently predatory— financial services available at check-cashing outlets, pay-day lenders, and pawn shops.” Appleseed says the time has come to bring back the system to help immigrants, and it will provide additional revenue to the Postal Service as well. It's a great idea, but don't hold your breath.
Much more than stamps: And to round things out, a video about the oldest working post office in Florida — on the closing list.
(Image credits: Towson post office; rally in Portland; Dreiser Loop, Co-op City, by Evan Kalish; Pimmit post office, Google Street View; Philatelic Phil, by Evan Kalish; Ward CO post office; Death Valley sign; Lake George, MN post office; Postal Savings.)