Fork in the Road for POStPlan

August 2, 2012

The Postal Service has assured the Postal Regulatory Commission on several occasions that it would not use lease problems or staffing issues to close POStPlan post offices by emergency suspension.  Yet even before the implementation of POStPlan has officially begun, that seems to be exactly what’s happening.

In Helen, Maryland, the post office is set to be reduced to two hours a day under POStPlan.  In June, the postmaster decided to take the retirement incentive, and her last day on the job was July 31.  The next day an article appeared in the South Maryland News saying that the Postal Service is declaring an emergency suspension and closing the post office on August 17th.  The Postal Service has also informed the landlord that it won’t be renewing the lease. 

The Postal Service’s Discontinuance Handbook says the circumstances that may justify an emergency suspension include “lack of qualified personnel to operate the office” and “termination of a lease or rental agreement when suitable alternate quarters are not available in the community, especially when the termination is sudden or unexpected.”

There’s no indication that the Postal Service even tried to find someone to staff the Helen post office after it learned that the postmaster was retiring, and the position is not currently listed on the Postal Service’s Job Search website.  As for the lease, it appears that the Postal Service simply decided not to renew the lease, so this is not a situation where the lease negotiations broke down and the Postal Service couldn’t find another location.

The Postal Service is simply using the postmaster vacancy to terminate the lease and declare an emergency suspension of the Helen post office.  This, despite the fact that the Postal Service has explicitly reassured the PRC that it would not be doing anything such thing.


The Postal Service’s assurances

The lease issue and staffing problem have come up repeatedly in the POStPlan Advisory Opinion process.

When the Postal Service’s witness for POStPlan, Jeffrey Day, was cross-examined a few weeks ago, emergency suspensions over lease problems came up several times, and Mr. Day assured the Commission that POStPlan post offices were not heading toward a lot of suspensions.

In the Reply Brief filed just a few days ago with the PRC, the Postal Service addressed concerns about lease issues leading to emergency suspensions as follows: “While it is possible that a POStPlan Office may, at some point in the future, undergo a suspension because of lease negotiations, the Postal Service has no plan for using the lease negotiation process as a pretext to close Post Offices.”

The staffing issue is even more important because the Postal Service is looking at filling several thousand postmaster vacancies post offices over the coming months.  A couple of thousand positions probably became vacant on July 31.  Another two thousand will open up at the end of August and September.

Under questioning by PRC Chairman Ruth Goldway, Mr. Day testified that the Postal Service didn’t have a special plan for filling thousands of part-time positions because they have been “hiring this type of noncareer employee for years and years and years” (Transcript, p. 206). 

Later in the hearing, Chairman Goldway was quite clear about what worried her: “I am still concerned about the ability to hire people who work just two hours a day and whether, as has happened with suspensions in the past, if you can’t find somebody we’ll wind up with a suspension” (Transcript, p. 299).

That concern was reiterated several times by the PRC’s Public Representative.  In his Initial Brief, the PR argued that “there is no basis for witness Day’s assertions that the Postal Service will be able to staff virtually all RMPOs. And an unstaffable Post Office is destined for closure, just as in Kirksey, KY.” 

That was a reference to the case of Kirksey, Kentucky, where the post office was suspended in April 2012 after the Postmaster Relief running the office was assigned to a different location and the Postal Service said it couldn't find anyone to fill the vacancy.  After an appeal to the PRC and an order from the Commission reminding the Postal Service of its obligation to either restore services or conduct a formal discontinuance process, the Postal Service said last month it would discontinue Kirksey and open a Village Post Office instead. 

In Dubious Battle: The Postal Service, Congress, and Verizon go at it

July 31, 2012

Congress and the Postal Service are locked in a brutal face-off, with the future of the post office at stake.  An angry Congressman writes the Postmaster General accusing postal officials of uttering falsehoods.  The Postal Service defends itself by blaming an Internet provider. 

No, we’re not talking about Darrell Issa, postal D-day, the historic default on the $5.6 billion payment to the retiree health care fund, or the liquidity crisis destined to occur if Congress doesn’t rescue the Postal Service with new legislation.

Those are just abstract bookkeeping issues.  Whatever the headlines say, a default is not going to affect daily operations of the Postal Service in any significant way.  (Not that the headlines will help USPS revenues very much — the stakeholders hate uncertainty.)

The more serious issue is something very concrete — a parking lot

Not far from the halls of Congress and postal headquarters lies the wealthy community of Bethesda, Maryland.  It’s there that three behemoths — the USPS, Congress, and Verizon — are locked in a heated dispute over a half dozen or so parking spaces. 

It’s no joke.  Parking is one of the scarcest resources on the planet, especially in downtown Bethesda.

The problems all started a few weeks ago, when the Postal Service closed two Bethesda post offices — the New Deal post office on Wisconsin Avenue at Montgomery Lane and the Arlington Road office — and relocated them into a new retail facility, about ten blocks down Wisconsin Avenue from the historic post office.  There’s a parking lot adjacent to the new facility, but when customers visiting the post office started parking there, they found themselves being ticketed and possibly getting towed.  

That’s when Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen stepped in.  He wrote the Postmaster General in May about the problem and got a reply from the USPS Government Relations Manager explaining that the agency was doing everything it could to minimize the parking difficulties.  With his constituents continuing to complain, the Congressman wasn’t satisfied, so more letters were exchanged.  What postal officials told the Congressman served only to increase his ire.  (The Bethesda Patch has the story and all the letters.)

The Postal Service explained that when they scoped out the new location before signing the lease, they saw a sign saying that the parking was available to the tenant.  The lot didn’t belong to the new post office building, however.  It belonged to the building on the other side, which has two tenants — Mattress Warehouse and Verizon. 

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.)

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