Discontinuances discontinued: Where have all the closures gone?

July 30, 2012

The Postal Service may be taking a new line on downsizing its retail network.  Instead of big plans and long lists of potential closures, the Postal Service is apparently adopting a more incremental approach.

After years of talking about closing thousands of post offices — after all the announcements of new initiatives, after all the town meetings, advisory opinions, appeals, and everything else — the Postal Service has managed to close about eight hundred post offices since 2008, most of them last year.

That's about twice the annual closure rate for the past 40 years (about a hundred a year), but it’s a far cry from what the Postal Service was envisioning just a few months ago, and it's certainly not enough to please Darrell Issa, whose postal reform legislation would create a Postal BRAC Commission  to close thousands of post offices and processing facilities.

In fact, it looks as though the number of closures for 2012 will be well below average.  Since the moratorium began in December, the Postal Service appears not to have gone through a full discontinuance process — initiating a feasibility study, developing the proposal, issuing a final determination notice, and actually closing the doors – for a single post office.

The Postal Service started the big push to close post offices in 2009 with the Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation initiative (SBOC) — a plan to close over 3,000 urban and suburban post offices.  In January 2011, there was talk of closing 2,000 small rural post offices

Then in July 2011, the Postal Service presented the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), a plan to close 3,700 post offices.  It also published a list of over 700 more that had already been initiated for discontinuance study. 

In September, the Deputy Postmaster General said that another list of 4,000 was in the works.  On several occasions, the Postmaster General himself said he planned to close as many as 15,000 post offices.  As recently as January 2012, the Postal Service was telling the PRC to expect “mass closures.”

That was the rhetoric.  The reality is POStPlan, which will keep 13,000 small post offices open by reducing their hours and getting rid of their postmasters.  And that’s about it.   No 15,000 post offices getting shuttered, no mass closures.  Not a bang but a whimper.


What's going on?

That’s not to say that post offices haven’t been closing.  There have been several “emergency suspensions” over lease problems.  The latest case occurred on July 21 in Memphis, where the Crosstown Station closed because the Postal Service and the landlord "did not reach an agreement to renew the lease." 

There have also been “relocations,” that is, the post office closes and retail services are moved to a carrier annex or some other undesirable spot, but that process doesn’t require a discontinuance study (at least according to the Postal Service and the PRC).  

The Postal Service is also selling off its properties.  More than forty historic post office buildings have been sold or put on the market.  

Just last Thursday, there was a meeting in Santa Monica about the proposed sale of its historic New Deal post office.  The Postal Service says it plans to move retail services to a carrier annex located in what one citizen described as "a desert."  And while the Postal Service held a meeting with the community, there won't be a full discontinuance process for that post office either.

There have been a few discontinuance studies and final determinations — there were lots of them in late 2011 and early 2012 — but those post offices didn't close due to the moratorium.  Now the closure decisions have been superseded by POStPlan, and the final determinations are being held in abeyance.

According to in Postal Bulletin, which lists official discontinuances in its Address Management section, only a handful of discontinuances have occurred over the past few months and they were all for post offices that were suspended long ago.  These discontinuances were basically just cleaning up loose ends. 

Double Trouble: DUOed & lease expiring

July 28, 2012

There are two signs your post office may be in danger of closing: The Postal Service is moving the carriers to another facility — that’s called Delivery Unit Optimization (DUO) — or the lease is set to expire over the coming months.  You’ve got double trouble if both of those things are happening.  It could be that the Postal Service is moving out the carriers in anticipation of not renewing the lease and then closing the post office.

There are about 58 post offices that are being DUOed during June through September and that also have leases expiring over the next year.  The list with the details is here, and a quick summary is here:

As the USPS website explains, “Delivery Unit Optimization involves relocating letter carriers out of local Post Offices, stations and branches and consolidating them into centralized delivery offices that will continue to be served by the same processing and distribution center.  The existing retail operation will require less space and the office could then be downsized to a smaller space nearby.”

The public is usually unaware of a DUO since the carriers work in the back of the post office, and when they’re moved to another facility, it doesn’t affect the retail business in the front.  DUOs happen all the time, and it doesn’t mean that the post office will eventually close. 

However, a closure is often preceded by a DUO.  The Postal Service moves out the carriers, then says it doesn’t need all the space so it’s time to close the post office and “relocate.”  Lately, that seems to mean moving the retail services to a carrier annex inconveniently located on the outskirts of town.

Lease expirations are another story.  The Postal Service has a habit of causing problems during lease renewal negotiations, and then declaring an emergency suspension.  The post office closes with hardly any notice, and while a formal discontinuance is supposed to follow soon after, that doesn’t always happen.  The practice has come under scrutiny by the PRC, and it seems to be getting worse now that the Postal Service has turned over all lease negotiations to CB Richard Ellis.

Over the past few months, there have been cases where the Postal Service gave the landlord every indication it wouldn’t be renewing the lease, then declared a suspension after the landlord found a new tenant.  CBRE is apparently demanding big rent reductions (like 30%), an early-termination clause (which allows the Postal Service to cancel the lease on short notice), and changes in who pays for the maintenance.  Anytime a lease is expiring, a post office is in danger of the Postal Service finding a reason not to renew and to close the facility.

It should be noted that 38 of the 58 post offices being DUOed and with a lease expiring soon are also on the POStPlan list.  It’s very likely that in many of these cases, the Postal Service is moving the carriers not in preperation for closing the post office but because under POStPlan there won’t be a full-time postmaster to supervise the carriers. 

There will probably be a lot of DUOs going on at POStPlan post offices.  Of the approximately 300 post offices being DUOed June 1 through September 30, about half are at POStPlan post offices (that list is here).

A list of all the DUOs occurring June through September is here (it comes from the USPS website here).  A list of the post offices with leases expiring over the next year is here (there are over four thousand of them).  That list comes from the USPS facilities lists, which hasn’t been updated in quite a while, so some of these leases may have already been renewed.

Keep an eye on the list of those being DUOed with a lease expiring soon, and see how many of them end up being suspended, closed, or relocated.  It will be a good indication of whether the Postal Service really plans to preserve post offices under POStPlan, or if it's just a distraction while the Postal Service continues to close them.

Photo credits: Post offices in
Catawba, WI (DUO 7/28/12, lease exp. 8/31/12)
Sims, NC (DUO 8/11/12, lease exp. 9/30/12)
Farnham, VA (DUO 8/22/12, lease exp. 10/31/12)
Dunnsville, VA (DUO 7/10/12, lease exp. 8/31/12)
(And a thank you to Don Cheney for some help on this one.)

"A half-vast plan": A postmaster comments on POStPlan

[Today, Postmaster Mark Jamison of Webster, North Carolina, shared these comments on POStPlan with the Postal Regulatory Commission.]

July 27, 2012


I am not an intervener in this docket. I understand that these comments cannot become a part of the record and may not have an impact on your deliberations in this case. I hope, however, that you will read them and give them some thought even if they do not add to the weight of your decision.

I am retiring today after more than thirty years of government service, over twenty-eight of them with the United States Postal Service. I retire having served the town of Webster, North Carolina, as postmaster for the last fourteen years.

Webster, a Level 13 office, serves post office boxes only and as late as two years ago brought in more than $120,000 in revenue. It serves a much wider community than the 476 post office boxes housed within it. People come to Webster because, I am told, the service is both friendly and thorough. They come from a distance even though there are at least three other offices within fifteen miles including a Level 20 in Sylva, North Carolina.

Over the years, in addition to delivering mail, selling postage, and offering advice on mailing, I have filled out money orders for the elderly and others who needed that assistance. I have watched children grow up. I have gone to countless dance and piano recitals, several weddings, and more funerals than I care to mention. I have put together four bicycles so they would be ready on Christmas morning. I have opened stuck jars, called doctors and utilities for explanations for customers. I have been an ear, a friend and a counselor and in all these roles and many others I have proudly represented the United States Postal Service.

I would like to think that all those surveys that claim that the United States Postal Service is the most trusted government entity are because of people like me who serve their communities in many of the same ways. People who make sure that someone gets that package of medicine or an Express mail even though the sign says the office is closed or the address is incorrect, people who serve not as bureaucrats but as unscripted human faces.

Webster is an office that will be downgraded by POStPlan. It is slated to go to six hours but if my calculations are correct, based on the slippery and ever moving targets offered by the Postal Service, it is likely to fall to four hours after the next evaluation. And three years from now when the current lease expires the office is very likely to close.

The Annexation of the Post Office

July 26, 2012

A new trend is emerging.  The Postal Service is closing post offices in downtown areas and busy shopping centers, and moving retail services to a carrier annex on the outskirts of town. 

The “annexation” process began a long time ago, when the Postal Service started moving carriers from the main post office or a branch out to an annex, leaving only the retail services behind.  Now they’re moving the retail business to the annex, too.

That’s what’s happening in Camas, Washington, where they’re selling an historic New Deal post office in the center of town and relocating services to the annex.  Same thing in Santa Monica, California, Northfield, Minnesota, Ukiah, California, and Norwich, Connecticut.

A few days ago, there was news it was happening in Redmond, Washington (a town famous for biking), and it's the same story in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.  

Today local news is reporting that the post office in Newbury Park, California, will be relocated to the carrier annex as soon as the lease ends next April.

The Newbury Park branch is located in the Stagecoach Plaza.  It’s a typical suburban shopping center, nothing special in terms of history or architecture.  The Postal Service leases the space, so we’re not talking about selling off a significant New Deal post office like those in Camas, Santa Monica, Northfield, Ukiah, and Norwich.

But the Newbury Park post office has been in the Stagecoach Plaza for 44 years, and it’s a busy place, conveniently located for people shopping and dining in the area.  There are 14 stores and restaurants right in the plaza, and on either side are more stores, a couple of big motels, and not too far away, more shopping centers. 

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