Moving toward the End-Game: A moratorium maybe, a Goldway dissent, a PMG promise to hold off on closing post offices and DUOs too
November 9, 2011
A moratorium on post office closings came a step closer today, the Postmaster General has apparently promised to hold off on closing post offices until the first of the year, and the Chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission dissented on an appeals decision again. A big day in postal world (and don't even mention the stock market).
Earlier in the day, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was considering S. 1789, the “21st Century Postal Service Act of 2011,” and the “markup” of the bill included an amendment that would suspend the closing of post offices until some retail “service standards” are established. The amendment actually passed, with a 12-4 vote, and if it becomes part of the postal reform law Congress is working on, it might mean a moratorium on post office closings.
According to a message from Mark Strong, president of the National League of Postmasters, to League members, the committee also mentioned during its discussions that the Postmaster General “has agreed to back off of current closing until the legislative process has a chance to work its way to fruition, and the setting of standards is complete.”
The Fort Smith City Wire confirms that news with a report that U.S. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Prescott) announced on his Twitter feed that the U.S. Postal Service will “temporarily suspend” all post office closings nationwide from November 19 to January 2.
UPDATE 11/10/11: The Congressman's Tweet was about a letter USPS VP Dean Granholm sent to VPs of Area Operations, indicating that "in an effort to avoid unnecessary service interruptions or logistical challenges, all Delivery Unit Optimization (DUO) implementations and post office closures will be temporarily suspended beginning November 19, 2011 and continuing through January 2, 2012." The letter also says, however, that all districts may proceed with the discontinuance process, including community meetings and final determination postings. "Only the actual physical closing of a post office or the physical relocation of routes from one facilty to another (DUO) will be termporary suspended." Granholm's letter is here.
The suspension of closings during the holiday season won't help at least one post office. The Pimmit branch post office in Falls Church, Virginia, near Tyson's Corner outside Washington, DC, was told in September that it would be closed this Friday — a decision currently being appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC). The appellant, attorney Elaine Mittleman, a devoted patron of the Pimmit post office, also applied for a “suspension” that would have kept the post office open while the appeal was being heard. The PRC turned down the request today, and the post office will apparently close on Friday.
The Chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, dissented from her colleagues on today’s Pimmit decision. It’s her fourth dissent on appeals cases since July. In her dissenting opinion, Goldway wrote, “For many years, the Postal Service has kept post offices open during the pendency of a post office closing appeal. In this case, involving a branch office, the Postal Service chose to proceed with closing despite the appeal underway. In my opinion, the Postal Service should, as a matter of course, suspend the closure of branches and stations, in addition to post offices, where a post office closing appeal is underway.”
If you’re not into the lingo, that’s a reference to the fact that “stations” and “branches” — post offices that are “secondary” to the main post office of a city — are, according to the Postal Service, not entitled to the same closing process as a main post office. The PRC has long disputed this, but the disagreement continues to fester, and Pimmit is now another victim of the unresolved debate. Today the majority of the PRC commissioners chose to side with the Postal Service, so the Pimmit branch will not get the benefit of the doubt and stay open while the appeal goes forward. That will make it even more difficult to win an affirmative decision from the PRC, and it could seal the fate of Pimmit.
Today’s markup of S.1789 provided better news, at least in part, by moving us closer to a moratorium on post office closings and the implementation of “service standards” that could make it more difficult to close small rural post offices, perhaps others as well. These service standards involve issues like the maximum time and distance a postal customer should reasonably be expected to travel to a post office, as well as demographic matters, like how seniors or other “vulnerable” populations might be impacted by a post office closing. (More on the service standards is here, and for more on the background to how the amendment came to be, see the NAPUS website.)
It could take a while to work out the details of the service standards, and the moratorium would presumably stop all closings during that time. The postal reform act might not prevent thousands and thousands of post offices from eventually closing, but it would certainly slow down the Postal Service in its effort to close post offices as fast as possible.
September 24, 2011
Remember Nader's Raiders, the group of young activists who went to Washington in the 60s and 70s (and beyond) to work with Ralph Nader in his fight for consumer protection, a clean environment, and accountable government? Among the hundreds of publications that came out of Nader's Center for Responsive Law are two of the best books written about the post office and the struggle between those who would privatize it and those fighting to maintain it as a public institution.
The first was The Postal Precipice: Can the U.S. Postal Service Be Saved? by Kathleen Conkey (1983), and it was followed by Preserving the People's Post Office by Christopher W. Shaw (2006). These two books are required reading for anyone who wants to understand the push to privatize the post office and why it needs to be resisted.
Nader has been a long-time advocate for the “people’s post office,” and he wrote the prefaces for both books (an excerpt is here). For years now, Nader has been advocating for the creation of a postal consumer action group that would represent the interests of citizens at the table of postal stakeholders.
This past August, Nader’s Center for Responsive Law entered the postal fray yet again by joining the Advisory Opinion process being conducted by the Postal Regulatory Commission on the USPS plan to close thousands of post offices. You can see their “interrogatories” posed to the Postal Service, along with the USPS responses, in the PRC docket, here.
This week Nader wrote a letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The letter explains how the “crisis” we’re hearing so much about has been totally manufactured and could be easily corrected by Congressional action. Readers of “Save the Post Office” are familiar with the story, but Nader’s letter does a very good job going over the numbers and explaining the details about how postal workers have overpaid billions of dollars into pension plans and their retiree health care plan.
Nader explains how the Postal Service has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) by as much as $75 billion, as well as overpaying into the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) by about $6.8 billion (as of FY 2009). Combined, these overpayments amount to about $82 billion. If a significant portion of these overpayments were returned to the Postal Service, the crisis would vanish in a flash.
August 24, 2011
If you’ve had a chance to read Craig O'Donnell’s “They’re Coming for Your Post Office,” the story of his efforts to save his post office in Still Pond, Maryland, you know how frustrating it can be trying to get documents from the Postal Service when you’re fighting a closure. The Postal Service is supposed to share the documents because citizens need to see what the discontinuance study has revealed, what evidence has been gathered, and how the closing rationale may be flawed.
Even the American Postal Workers Union can have trouble getting documents out of the Postal Service, and the APWU has just filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board protesting the Postal Service's failure to provide information about Area Mail Processing feasibility studies.
It’s one thing for the Postal Service to diss an average citizen or the union by stonewalling on the documents, but you would expect elected officials to get a little more respect. Ask Iowa Congressman Steve King about that.
King’s office spent three frustrating weeks trying to get documents from the Postal Service about its plans to consolidate the large area mail processing (AMP) facility in Sioux City to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. King, along with Iowa’s senators, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, met with Postmaster General Donahoe in early August to discuss the Postal Service’s failure to respond to concerns the lawmakers and the community had expressed about the Sioux City decision, and the PMG promised they’d have the documents as soon as possible.
King’s chief-of-staff Bentley Graves exchanged numerous emails with USPS government relations representatives and made several phone calls as well. He was consistently told the documents would be available soon, but nothing materialized. One USPS rep just gave up and told Graves to talk her boss, the vice president of Government Relations, but the VP didn’t return his phone calls.
The Postal Service finally turned over the documents a few days ago, but heavily redacted, with key information blacked out. The complete document will be shared, the Postal Service says, only during a closed meeting with community and business leaders next week. King and others wanted the complete data so they could prepare for the meeting, but they’ll have to attend without it.
King now accuses the Postmaster General of reneging on his promise to hand over the documents (the word “promise” is repeated eight times in the five-paragraph press release), and he says the Postal Service is stonewalling and trying to “run out the clock” between now and October 1, the deadline for completing the move to Sioux Falls.
June 25, 2011
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has introduced a bill, H.R. 2309, to reform the Postal Service. Among other things, it would create a Commission on Postal Reorganization "to review postal infrastructure and recommend closures and consolidations to Congress, that will ultimately save the Postal Service at least $2 billion a year."
Closing $2 billion worth of post offices? How many is that, anyway? Well, that's hard to say but let's try ballbarking it. In the August 2010 Audit report for its Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation Initiative, the Postal Service found that it spends "about $425,000 per month to maintain operations at 28 of the 144 facilities we randomly selected for review." That comes to an annual saving of about $180,000 per closure. At that rate, saving $2 billion a year would require closing 11,000 postal facilities. But that's probably low-balling it. Let's add the 2,000 small rural post offices that the Postal Service is already in the process of closing—they don't cost much to operate but most of them run in the red. So saving $2 billion a year could mean closing at least 13,000 post offices—one in three. If that seems unlikely, consider that Great Britain closed 8,500 of its 20,000 post offices and they're looking at closing many more.
Issa's legislation would also remove "several legal hurdles that USPS currently faces when it comes to reducing costs, including allowing financially unsustainable retail postal facilities to be closed." The GAO, the OIG, and the Postal Service have all been advocating a streamlining of the closing process, so no surprise that Issa's legislation would also include efforts to remove those "barriers to retail network optimization" that make it hard to close a post office.
"This legislation encourages USPS to modernize its retail network and enables USPS to act more like a business," Issa said. That's the mantra: the Postal Service is a business, not a public service.
If anything like this legislation were to become law, that will be all she wrote for the brick-and-mortar post office.
A little dirt on Issa from Wikipedia: His net worth has been estimated at more than $250 million, making him the "richest member of Congress." A 1998 investigation by the San Francisco Examiner challenged his claims that as a soldier in the Army he provided security for President Richard Nixon and swept stadiums for bombs prior to games in the 1971 World Series. He's also been mixed up on several occasions with shenanegans involving insurance fraud and car theft. Kind of ironic since he made his fortune thanks to car alarm manufacturer Steal Stopper, which he took control of it by foreclosing on a loan he had made to the company when its founder missed a payment. You can imagine what he has in mind when he says the Postal Service needs to be run "like a business."
(Photo credit: Issa)