Post Office Stories

The writing on the wall in Reading: The Postal Service pulls a fast one

May 9, 2013

The Postal Service is putting another historic post office up for sale, and as usual it's showing little interest in hearing from the public or following the law.  

Selling off historic post offices isn't easy.  Not only does the Postal Service need to find a buyer willing to take on the encumbrances associated with a historic building; there are also numerous legal regulations about the procedures that must be followed.

One of the main purposes of these regulations is to ensure that the public has sufficient opportunity to express its concerns and to explore alternatives with postal officials.  

Time and again, however, the Postal Service has shown that it doesn't really give a hoot what people have to say.  And while it may make a nod toward following the letter of the law, it doesn’t much care about the spirit.

Last June the Postal Service informed postal workers and elected officials in Reading, Massachusetts, that it was considering selling the city's historic post office.  According to a brief news item about the announcement, Michael Foley, USPS project coordinator from the Greater Boston district, said that the plan hinged on finding a buyer for the property. 

Foley said it would take several months, possibly even a couple of years, before the plan came to fruition.  “If we do go forward, it’s not a quick process,” Foley said. “The time is dictated by the potential buyer.”

Mr. Foley’s remarks were probably intended to reassure the people in Reading that nothing was going to happen fast.  There would be plenty of time to talk about it.

Last month, the Postal Service began the official process for closing the post office, relocating retail services, and selling the building.  Things are happening a lot of faster than the people in Reading may realize.


Relocating Reading

The Reading post office was built in 1917.  As the Daily Times Chronicle reported on March 2, 1917, the post office was to be “a valuable addition to the public buildings in the town,” with impressive design and ornamental enhancements like Corinthian columns and a water fountain in front of the building.  The U.S. Treasury Department authorized $55,000 for the construction, but the total cost was probably three or four times that amount.

Last year, the Reading post office was appraised at $1,740,100.  It has 17,000 square feet of interior space, including the basement, and there are 62 parking spaces, plus a loading zone and other exterior spaces.

The Postal Service says that due to declining mail volumes it no longer needs such a large space and could make do with 1,700 square feet for a small retail office.  The Postal Service says it might rent back some space in the current post office building from the new owner, but that’s not likely.  The Postal Service always tells people that, just as a sop to soften the blow of losing the post office.

The Postal Service says there’s a lot of excess space in the Reading office, but there are 30 letter carriers and a few clerks in the facility who will need to be transferred to a postal facility in Woburn. 

The Postal Service says that in making tough decisions like closing a historic post office, it's just trying to act "like a business."  But the Postal Service is not a business.  It's a government agency, and as such, it's governed by a host of laws and regulations.  

In order to sell a historic post office like the one in Reading, the Postal Service must go through two legal processes, one for making its decision to relocate the retail services and a second to sell a historic building.  The first is governed by the Code of Federal Regulations, CFR 241.4, the section on “Expansion, relocation, and construction of post offices.”  The second, discussed below, involves Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

The regulations on relocating a post office are not particularly stringent — nothing like those that must be followed in order to close a post office completely.  When Congress made laws about expanding, relocating, and constructing post offices, legislators probably weren't thinking about the significant impacts associated with closing a historic downtown landmark and “relocating” retail services elsewhere.  The average person can’t even understand how closing down a historic post office comes under the category of “relocation.”


The meeting venue

While they may not be very extensive or detailed, the regulations on relocations clearly guarantee an opportunity for public input before a final decision is made.  There needs to be sufficient notice to the public, a comment period, a meeting, and an opportunity to appeal.  

CFR 241.4 has this to say about the meeting: The Postal Service should ask elected officials “that a Postal Service presentation of the project be placed on the regular agenda of a public meeting or hearing.  If no such meeting is planned within the next 60 days or the agenda of a planned meeting cannot accommodate the project, the USPS will schedule its own public hearing concerning the project, and will advertise the meeting or hearing in a local general circulation newspaper.”

The regulations give the Postal Service a choice between doing a presentation at a regular meeting of an elected body or holding a separate meeting focused exclusively on the post office.  In most cases, the agenda for a town meeting cannot accommodate something as significant as the decision to sell a historic post office, but the  Postal Service much prefers to do it that way.  It’s much easier to remain under radar by making a brief presentation at a regular meeting of a town council (or whatever the ruling body is called).  Such meetings are routine, and they’re typically not well attended by the public.  A separate meeting focused exclusively on the post office, however, can attract quite a crowd. 

Last month in Reading, the Postal Service took the easy way.  Rather than holding a meeting focused only the post office issues, it sent real estate specialist Joseph Mulvey to a regular meeting of the Reading Board of Selectmen.  

Mr. Mulvey is the Postal Service’s front man on the relocation and sale of post offices in the Northeast.  He knows all about public meetings on post office relocations.  In New York City, where there are at least five relocations underway, Mr. Mulvey asked to be put on the agenda of a March meeting of the Manhattan Borough Board so he could talk about some of them. 

Upon hearing that Mr. Mulvey was on the agenda, Chuck Zlatkin, Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, immediately suspected that Mulvey would use his presentation at the Board meeting to say that the Postal Service had fulfilled its public-meeting obligation under CFR 241.  Zlatkin warned elected representatives throughout the city, and they brought pressure on the Postal Service to hold separate meetings in each impacted neighborhood.  As a result, there were meetings for each of the post offices being relocated — Old Chelsea, Peter Stuyvesant, and Triborough — and Mr. Mulvey had to contend with hundreds of angry citizens complaining vociferously.

Unfortunately, the folks in Reading probably did not understand that the Postal Service would use Mr. Mulvey’s brief presentation at the Board of Selectmen to fulfill the agency’s requirement to have a public meeting.  Now the Postal Service doesn’t need to hold a separate meeting about the relocation of the Reading post office, and the public will have missed its opportunity to speak up.


Advance notice

In addition to attending or holding a public meeting, CFR 241.4 requires the Postal Service to give sufficient advance notice to the public about the upcoming meeting.  It's supposed to post a notice in the lobby of the post office and send a press release to the media so there's an announcement in the local newspaper.  But it doesn’t look like the Postal Service did a very good job on that score.

The Postal Service did produce a public notice intended to inform the public of the proposed relocation of the Reading post office, and the notice clearly states that the Postal Service would present its proposal at the April 9th meeting of the Board of Selectmen.  But for some reason, the notice did not make it into the local news.  There was no mention of the Postal Service’s presentation at the forthcoming meeting in the Reading Advocate, the, or the Reading Patch.  Perhaps the Postal Service didn't distribute the notice to the media, or perhaps these media outlets didn't see fit to publish it.

In advance of the April 9th meeting, Reading Town Manager Peter Hechenbleikner published a Notice of Public Hearing about the upcoming April 9th meeting in the local newspaper.  It states that a local restaurant's request for a liquor license would be on the agenda.  There’s no mention that the fate of the post office would also be under discussion, and there's no evidence that the Postal Service published such a Notice of Public Hearing either.

It’s possible that the notice about the Postal Service’s upcoming presentation at the Board meeting was posted somewhere in the Reading post office, but if so, it doesn’t look as though anyone paid much attention.  Perhaps it was posted discreetly, where not many people would see it. 

All in all, then, it’s very likely that hardly anyone in Reading knew that the future of the post office was on the Board’s agenda on April 9.  And you can be sure that very few people understood that this was going to be the only opportunity the public would have to meet with postal officials before they made a final decision on the relocation.


The public meeting

The agenda for the April 9th meeting of the Board of Selectmen shows that the Postal Service’s presentation was allotted 30 minutes.  It’s described simply as “Presentation – US Postal Service re: Plans for Reading Post Office.”   Mr. Mulvey probably used most of the 30 minutes giving his presentation, and there was very little time, if any, for hearing from the public.

Despite the significance of closing a post office that’s nearly a century old, Mr. Mulvey’s presentation to the Board was sandwiched between a report about an affordable housing trust fund and an application for a liquor license at a local pizza joint. 

In advance of the April 9th Board meeting, Mr. Hechenbleikner distributed a folder of materials about the items on the agenda.  It contains over 100 pages, including 25 pages on the affordable housing matter and more than 20 pages about the liquor license. 

There are three pages about the post office — a brief letter from Mr. Mulvey to Mr. Hechenbleikner about the planned sale, a brief memo to the Board from Mr. Hechenbleikner about his meeting with Mr. Mulvey, and a brief description of the property.  That's it, just those three pages.

Mr. Mulvey’s letter is interesting for the way it frames the situation: “In order to sustain universal service mail service to the American people,” writes Mulvey, “it is imperative that the Postal Service adjust its retail, delivery, and mail processing networks to match America’s changing communication trends and the anticipated continued decline in mail volume.”  Mr. Mulvey goes on to explain that the an “optimization study” has determined that the Reading post office is an “underutilized asset” that needs to be “right sized.” 

In other words, the Postal Service says that its ability to fulfill its universal service mission hinges on selling historic post offices like the one in Reading.  If you put it that way, what patriotic American could possibly object? 

Needless to say, there’s no mention in Mulvey’s letter about other alternatives — like leasing out the extra space, or encouraging Congress to rescind the mandate on the health care prepayments (the $5.5 billion annual payments are responsible for 80 percent of the $40 billion deficit), or asking a few big mailers to pay more on postage (the Postal Service loses over $1.5 billion a year on mail that doesn’t cover its attributable costs). 

For communities like Reading, those alternatives would be a lot less painful than selling landmark post offices in the heart of downtown. 


The public comment period

In addition to describing the notification procedures and the venue for the public meeting, CFR 241.4 says there needs to be a public comment period, and "not less than 15 days after the date of the most recent public meeting,” the Postal Service may “make a decision that takes into account community input and is consistent with postal objectives.” 

In other words, the comment period must be at least 15 days, but it could be longer, and in some cases, like La Jolla, California, several months passed between the meeting and the final decision.  In the case of Reading, however, Mr. Mulvey informed town officials that the public comment period would end exactly 15 days after it began.  He appeared at the council meeting on April 9, and he closed the comment period on April 24.

Given how little notice there was about the meeting, it’s not likely that many people took note of this short window of opportunity to comment.  One of the two news articles about the Board meeting doesn’t even mention a public comment period; the other is better — it mentions the April 24 deadline and provides an address where to send the letters.  Both articles, however, make it sound as if the decision is a done deal, so there’s not much incentive to comment anyway.

CFR 241.4 also provides for a 30-day appeal period, so once the Postal Service announces its final decision, there will be one more opportunity to provide written comments.  But there won’t be another meeting on the relocation decision, and it’s not likely that appeals will do any good either.  They are probably reviewed by the same postal officials who made the decision in the first place.


Section 106

As noted above, in order to sell a historic post office, the Postal Service must go through two processes, one for making a decision about relocating retail services and another for selling a historic building.  The sale is governed by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which “requires Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties.” 

The Postal Service is required to give all interested parties — the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and the general public — “a reasonable opportunity to comment on such undertakings.”

The federal regulations that implement Section 106 are described in considerable detail in 36 CFR Part 800 on the “Protection of Historic Properties.”  These regulations state, “The agency official shall ensure that the section 106 process is initiated early in the undertaking's planning, so that a broad range of alternatives may be considered during the planning process for the undertaking.”

The Postal Service has been ignoring this provision in the regulations, however, by segmenting the two processes: It does the relocation process first, then the Section 106 on the sale.  Thus, by the time the public can get involved on the issue of the sale, it's anything but "early in the undertaking's planning."  Instead, it’s a fait accompli.  The Postal Service has already made a decision to relocate, without ever giving anyone an opportunity to consider a “broad range of alternatives.”

One of those alternatives might be for the Postal Service to lease out the excess space in the post office.  There’s actually a federal regulation, 41 CFR 102-73.20, that requires government agencies to "extend priority consideration to available space in buildings under the custody and control" of the Postal Service.  The Postal Service should thus be notifying other government agencies that it has some extra space in the post office that may be available for leasing.  


The future of the Reading post office

While the Postal Service has not issued a final decision on the relocation of the Reading post office and while the appeals period hasn’t even begun, and even though the Postal Service has given no indication that it has yet to initiate a Section 106 procedure, the decision to sell the Reading post office looks like a done deal.

Last month’s news report on the latest developments makes this quite clear: “Reading officials have been notified by the United States Postal Service that it will go ahead with a plan to find a buyer for the building on Haven Street that currently houses the Reading Post Office, shifting the staff there to a facility on Washington Street in Woburn.  The building, located at 136 Haven Street, will be listed for sale in the coming weeks.”  That assessment of the situation leaves little doubt that the Postal Service will be selling the building.

Though more than eligible, the Reading post office is not on the National Register of Historic Places.  It iis on the Reading List of Historic Structures, but that doesn't do much to protect the building.  Last June, when news of a possible sale first came out, the Reading Historical Commission issued a statement clarifying what the law has to say about the matter.

There’s really nothing in the law ensuring that the building will be preserved.  The sale would fall under Reading's By-Law on Demolition of Structures of Potential Historical Significance, which allows the Reading Historical Commission to review and work with the property owner and other interested parties before any demolition permits are issued by the Building Inspector.  That doesn’t mean the building couldn’t be razed, however.  Should the new owner decide to preserve the building, there's nothing in the law preventing him from making significant alterations.  The Historical Commission can educate, inform, and advise, but it has little regulatory power.

The future of the Reading post office will be in the hands of the new owner, whoever that turns out to be.  One thing you can be sure of.  The people in Reading will have very little say about the matter.  The Postal Service will sell the building to whomever it wants.

Photo credits: Reading MA post office.

Another POStPlan post office hit with suspension, gets the fifth option

August 5, 2012


The Postal Service has closed another POStPlan post office by emergency suspension.  The Postal Service's reassurances to the Postal Regulatory Commission that it wouldn't be doing that don't seem to count for much.

A few days ago, we noted the emergency suspension of the post office in Helen, Maryland.  It’s on the POStPlan list, set to be downgraded to two hours a day.  The postmaster took the incentive offer and retired on July 31.  The next day the local news reported that the office would be closed by emergency suspension on August 17.

Now the is reporting that the post office in Brownsville, Maryland, has also been closed by emergency suspension.  As with Helen, which is about 120 miles away, the postmaster was looking at seeing her office reduced to two hours, and she took the incentive offer and retired on July 31.  The post office closed the same day. 

The Brownsville office was a Level 11 that had been studied for closure under the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI).  The post office has been located in the home of its retiring postmaster, Mary Ellen Younkins, since 1979.  She told the Postal Service that she wanted to end the lease on her last day, July 31, and the lease termination is now being cited as the cause for the emergency suspension.

Brownsville is a very small place, and there may not be many spaces available that could serve as a post office.  And there may not be anyone in town who wants to share part of their home with a post office, especially if the postmaster job is for just two hours a day at $11 an hour.

But the Postal Service created this situation, so it shouldn’t be an excuse for an emergency suspension.  The Postal Service has known for at least a month that it would be closing the Brownsville post office, but it didn’t bother with a meeting or a survey, and there’s no indication that it looked for someone to replace the postmaster or to find a new location. 

The Postal Service’s witness for POStPlan, Jeffrey Day, testified to the PRC that it wouldn’t be suspending POStPlan post offices because of lease issues or postmaster vacancies.  The briefs filed by the Postal Service repeat the same promise.  Yet that’s exactly what’s happened in both Helen and Brownsville.

Mr. Day and the Postal Service also said on numerous occasions that communities would be given four options — (1) reduced hours or close the post office and (2) use the post office in another town, (3) switch to rural delivery, or (4) open a Village Post Office (a postal counter in a private business like a general store).  

The Postal Service said it would decide what to do only after the community expressed its wishes in a survey and town meeting.  The Postal Service said it expected that in almost every case, the community would choose to have the hours reduced, and that’s what the Postal Service intended to do.

The folks in Brownsville were never given an opportunity to comment on the four options.  They just got a notice in the mail and found a sign on the door of the post office saying it was suspended due to a lease termination.  

A few houses down the block, workers contracted by the Postal Service could be seen pouring a cement footer for a cluster box unit.  

So there's a fifth option the Postal Service didn't mention — close the post office and replace it with a cluster box.

Brownsville resident Michael Yourtee told the local news that he understands that the Postal Service is in financial trouble, but wishes officials had solicited the opinions of the residents before making a final decision.

“The problem is the people weren’t consulted.  We didn’t have the chance to say what we’d like and maybe influence the decision.  They didn’t ask us and that’s terrible.  We’re not asked, we’re told.  We’re not children, we’re taxpayers.”

Residents in the village will now get their mail delivered to a cluster box, while those who live outside the village will need to install a mailbox, which is costing Mr. Yourtree $150.  Many will need to have their addresses changed as well.  And everyone who needs to send a package will have to drive eight miles to the nearest post office.

The Postal Service says the situation in Brownsville is temporary.  “The emergency suspension allows us time to find an alternate site or explore opening a Village Post Office," explained Postal Service spokesman George Maffett.

That makes it sound like the Postal Service is considering replacing the post office with a Village Post Office.  Not only did the Postal Service say it wouldn't do that unless the community wanted it, Mr. Day also said that there was no plan to replace post offices with VPOs.

The Postal Service has been talking about Village Post Offices since the great "new concept" was first unveiled in July 2011.  The Postal Service envisioned creating thousands of them to replace the small post offices they wanted to close.  

In his testimony last month, Mr. Day said so far there were just twenty-six VPOs in operation, but the Postal Service planned "to make a maximum effort" to expand their numbers, especially in communities where the post office would be open only two or four hours.  He noted that some communities might choose the option of having the hours reduced, and the Postal Service might still want to set up a Village Post Office as well (testimony, p. 265).  In these cases, Mr. Day testified, the VPO would be “an enhancement rather than a replacement.”

Commissioner Tony Hammond immediately followed up the cross-examination of Mr. Day with a question: Did the Postal Service have plans to close a two- or four-hour post office if a Village Post Office were set up?

Mr. Day: “That is not our plan.” 

Commissioner Hammond: “That’s not your goal?"

Mr. Day: "No."

Commissioner Hammond: "That's good to know."

In its Advisory Opinion on the RAOI, the PRC described the VPOs as "limited substitutes for full service postal retail facilities" because they just sell stamps and flat-rate boxes.  That may have been on Commissioner Hammond's mind when he said it was "good to know" that the Postal Service didn't plan to replace POStPlan post offices with VPOs.  

Come September, however, when the Postal Service starts holding community meetings for POStPlan, it's likely that the folks in Brownsville will be happy if they can even get a Village Post Office.  It's obviously not a satisfactory substitute for a full-service post office, but it might be better than what they have now — a cluster box.

There’s been a post office in Brownsville since 1824.  “It’s kind of sad to see it all go,” Brownsville resident Steve Specht said.  “After 188 years of having a post office in Brownsville, why now?”

(Photo credits: Former Brownsville post office; sign on Brownsville post office door; ad for cluster box unit)

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 his Reply Brief submitted last Friday, the Public Representative returned to the staffing theme.  Quoting from the comments submitted by Postmaster Mark Jamison (which you can read here), the Public Representative said this: “A postmaster who is retiring today has informed the Commission ‘that at this moment the Postal Service has no idea how it is going to staff several thousand post offices. In the last couple of weeks my managers have approached me and virtually begged me to accept a PMR position upon retirement.’”

The Public Representative suggested that the “exodus of qualified personnel” from the Postal Service will provide many occasions for emergency suspensions, as well as triggering discontinuance studies.

The Postal Service’s Reply Brief addressed the staffing issue at length.  “With respect to staffing concerns," said the Postal Service, "while the participants may disagree, witness Day testified and past practice has shown that the Postal Service will be able to staff virtually all POStPlan offices. 
(Tr. 1/207-08.)  Witness Day emphasized that the Postal Service staffs many POStPlan Offices that are currently open less than forty hours per week and that the Postal Service hires other part-time employees as temporary employees.”

The Public Representative had noted three cases in the recent past where offices were closed because there wasn’t available personnel to run them.   The Postal Service dismissed the examples as “not record evidence,”  and proceeded to say that the notion that it will have difficulty staffing the POStPlan post offices is an “unproven assumption.” 

“No record evidence supports such a conclusion,” said the Postal Service, “and witness Day stated unambiguously that he does not foresee a problem with staffing RMPOs and PTPOs" (Remotely Manage and Part Time Post Offices).


At a bend in the road

There's been a post office in Helen, Maryland, for nearly 109 years.  The town is named after one of the daughters of its first postmaster, Joseph O. Hancock, who ran the post office out of his general store.   

The post office is now located on the corner of a 90 degree bend in Point Lookout Road (Maryland Route 5) between Mechanicsville and Leonardtown.  They say that drunk drivers and others who’ve lost control of their car have run right into it.  It happened once, anyway.

The postmaster of Helen is Karen Guy Reynolds. Her mother and grandmother were also long-time postmasters in Helen. 

Reynolds retired a couple of days ago, on July 31, after 17 years on the job — and after 73 years for the Reynolds family.  Along with some 4,000 other postmasters, she took the incentive offer being used to encourage postmasters to retire so that the Postal Service can replace them with lower paid, part-time workers.

The Postal Service announced this week that the post office in Helen will be closed by emergency suspension on August 17, 2012.  Laura Dvorak, regional spokesperson for the Postal Service, explained to the local news that the emergency suspension “gives us time to look around to give us options.”  

Considering that the Postal Service has informed the landlord that it won't be renewing the lease and the patrons are moving their boxes to another post office, it would appear that keeping a post office in Helen is not one of those options.

The Helen post office is a not a big operation.  It is a Level 53 open five and half hours a day, and it has 40 boxholders.  The Postal Service doesn’t provide figures on operating costs and revenues, but one can do some estimating.

Based on its earned retail hours (a number that the Postal Service has released), it looks like average annual revenues at Helen were in the neighborhood of $23,000 a year.  They were definitely below $27,000, because that was the cutoff for post offices included in last year's closing plan, the Retail Access Optimization Initiative, of which Helen was one.

The annual rent is $1,200 a year.  The postmaster’s salary ($18/hour) was thirty-something thousand a year including benefits.  There was also a Postmaster Relief for Saturdays.  The total operating costs were probably around $35,000 a year. 

Looked at simply as a retail outlet (a post office is obviously much more), the Helen post office was probably losing something in the neighborhood of twelve thousand a year.  Under POStPlan, Helen was going to be reduced to two hours a day and staffed by someone making $11.76 an hour with no benefits.  Depending on how much revenue the Postal Service lost in the process, that would probably have put Helen in the black.  It doesn't look like it matters.  It's easier for the Postal Service just to close the Helen post office.  

There’s obviously an argument to be made for saving a few thousand dollars by closing post offices like the one in Helen, but there’s also a procedure for it.  Under Title 39 and the Postal Service’s own Discontinuance Handbook, numerous steps must be followed.  Those procedures are designed to protect small post offices from being closed capriciously or just because they’re running at a deficit.  But when the Postal Service declares an emergency suspension, it can close a post office without going through all those steps.  

POStPlan has been presented to the country as an alternative to closing small rural post offices.  It’s supposed to be a more cost-efficient way of operating them.  Reducing the hours and replacing career postmasters with part-time workers will save money and put these post offices in a position where they basically break even.

POStPlan is not supposed to be a backdoor way to close post offices.  It’s not supposed to be a way to drive down revenues (as reducing the hours will surely do) to make discontinuance the logical last step.  And it’s not supposed to be a way to create opportunities for emergency suspensions.

POStPlan won’t officially be implemented until after the PRC issues its Advisory Opinion later this month, but the retirement incentive offer was the first step in the actual implementation, and thousands of postmasters are now leaving the service or transferring out of their POStPlan post offices.  That’s creating thousands of situations just like the one in Helen.

The Postal Service has promised the PRC that POStPlan would keep post offices open and not serve as a way to close them.  Given what’s already happening in Helen, the Postal Service is not getting off to a good start in keeping that promise.

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(Photo credits: Helen MD post office (Google streetview); Kirksey KY post office (streetview) Helen MD post office at the bendPostmaster Reynolds)

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. 

View Larger Map 

(New post office to the left of lot, Mattress Warehouse to the right, Verizon to the right of that)

The Postal Service contacted its soon-to-be new neighbors about sharing the parking, but Verizon was, as the Postal Service put it, “non-responsive.”   The Postal Service was in a hurry because they had to get out of the Wisconsin Avenue and the Arlington Road locations, so it signed the lease even though the parking issue was still unresolved. 

Now that the post office is in its new location, Verizon continues to object to sharing the parking, and Verizon’s landlord can’t do anything about it because there’s a provision in the lease that requires the tenant’s approval to sublet the parking.  Verizon isn’t messing around.  It has even stationed attendants at the parking lot to tell postal patrons the lot is not for them. 

Congressman Van Hollen wasn’t buying any of the Postal Service’s explanations.  In yet another letter last week to the Postmaster General, the Congressman says it was “astounding” that the Postal Service could lease the new space without inquiring any further into the availability of parking than noticing a sign.  He said that the claim that the Postal Service was under time pressure to move into a new location was “patently untrue” because the landlord of the Montgomery Lane post office was willing to extend the lease “for five more years at below-market rent.” 

The Congressman was particularly irked that the Postal Service had assured the community — well before the new location was chosen — that there would be plenty of parking at the new facility.  “The USPS’ misrepresentations of its procedures and its stated priorities has become the source of the community’s outrage at the misguided selection of this location.”

Congressman Van Hollen ends his letter by again calling upon the Postmaster General to relocate the post office to a site that meets the community’s needs “as expeditiously as possible.”

It’s really unfortunate that things have come to this.  The old New Deal post office was a priceless historic building, located in the hearth of Bethesda, and the Postal Service could have just stayed put.  The building is adorned with a New Deal mural depicting women doing farm work and running a farmers’ market.  Eleanor Roosevelt took a special interest in it, even taking time to visit the artist as he was making preliminary sketches.  The sketch was “charming,” wrote Eleanor in her diary, and then she added, “I think these post offices are making the country more and more conscious of decorative, artistic values.” 

Outside, next to the post office, is a landmark Madonna of the Trail statue, erected by the National Old Trails Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution to honor pioneer women.  Future president Harry S. Truman, then president of the Trails Association, presided over the dedication of the monument on April 19, 1929. 

Despite the historic significance of the post office, the Postal Service, in its limitless wisdom,  decided that it wanted to grab a quick $4 million by selling the post office and relocating services elsewhere.  While they were at it, they decided to sell the Arlington Road post office as well and to merge the two post offices together at a new location.  The Arlington Road post office, by the way, will be demolished to make room for an apartment building.  The fate of the historic Wisconsin Avenue post office remains unclear.

No one seems to be challenging the Postal Service on this newly emerging pattern of closing two post offices and consolidating them into a single new location.  The Postal Service says it doesn’t need to do a discontinuance study when it simply relocates services from one building to another in the same community. 

But how can the Postal Service relocate two post offices into one space and not do a discontinuance study on at least one of them?  Using that logic, the Postal Service could consolidate every post office in a metropolitan area — the main post office and all the stations and branches — into one new location, and call all of the closures relocations.  That can’t be consistent with Title 39.

Anyway, one of the most interesting aspects of this story is the Verizon connection.  According to the Postal Service, the whole issue could be resolved if Verizon would simply give the landlord permission to sublet some of the parking spaces to the post office.   The Postal Service told Congressman Van Hollen that it is “continuing to seek a resolution to address the parking concerns with Verizon,” and even though it has just signed a lease on the new space, it’s even willing to look for “alternate quarters” if things don’t work out.

It was just a few months ago, in January, that the Postal Service and Verizon were singing each other’s praises after signing a deal making Verizon the prime contractor for the Postal Service's telecommunications platform.  The contract means $186 million for Verizon over the next six years.  With over $70 million of USPS business in 2011, Verizon was already the 18th largest supplier for the Postal Service.  The new contract promises to boost its ranking for 2012.

When the new deal was announced, Susan Zeleniak, group president for Verizon Federal, said the company will be “delivering the communications backbone that helps keep the mail on time in a modern world.”

You’d think that with the Postal Service throwing that much business its way, Verizon might be willing to cut the Postal Service some slack over a half dozen parking spaces. 

Perhaps if the Postal Service gave Verizon a call about the parking issue in Bethesda and reminded their telecommunications partner of the $186 million contract, they’d get the desired response: "Yes, I can hear you now." 

(UPDATE: A news report on Tuesday says the Postal Service has to pay the landlord of the old Wisconsin Avenue post office $186,000 even though it's already vacated the space.  It seems that postal officials thought there was a three-month early-termination clause in the lease, but it was actually nine months, and for some reason, the rent quadrupled during this period.  Congressman Van Hollen says the new revelations raise questions about management abilities.  "I certainly hope there are not more disturbing details," said Van Hollen, "because what we know is disturbing enough.”

(Photo credits: New post office on Wisconsin Avenue, New Deal post office, Arlington Road post office, all by Evan Kalish, who did a terrific post about all three post offices back in June, just when the move was happening, for his website Going Postal.  Mural of women farming.  The video is an excerpt from this walking tour of Bethesda, with Bill Offutt, author of "Bethesda: A Social History.")

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. 

The distance from the current post office (A on the map) to the new location in the annex (B) isn’t a big deal.  It’s just three miles — a six-minute drive up the 8-lane freeway.  People live in their cars in California, and another few miles won’t mean much.

But the annex is located at the dead-end of a service road that runs parallel to the freeway.  There’s nothing around but empty space.  No stores, restaurants, no place else you might stop by on an errand.  

The annex itself is a sprawling warehouse — no windows, nothing inviting.  It was built to make it easier for trucks to pick up and deliver the mail, not for regular customers to stop by on a postal errand.  People will dread going out to the annex to mail a package or pick something up. 

Most of them will probably switch over to the UPS store.  Did we mention that there’s an UPS store in the Stagecoach Plaza, just a few doors down from the US post office?

News of the relocation took the owners of the plaza by surprise because the post office never appeared on any closing list, but one of the customers told the local news that he had been hearing from postal workers for months that a relocation was in the works. 

The Postal Service says there will be a community meeting, but don’t expect a full-blown discontinuance process.  As with so many recent closures, the Postal Service says they're not “closing” the post office — they’re just “relocating” it.  The community won’t have much say in the decision, and they won’t be able to appeal it to the Postal Regulatory Commission, which considers relocations out of its jurisdiction.

The Postal Service says it will save $179,232 on the rent, but it says nothing about how much business it will lose to UPS.  The Postal Service doesn't seem very worried about sending some of its revenues to competitors.  That may actually be the goal.  Like outsourcing and selling off post office buildings, running the business into the ground is just another way to privatize the Postal Service. 

(Photo credits: Newbury Park post office and annex, Google Maps;  entrance to Newbury Park post office; Newbury Park UPS store)

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