Week in Review

Week in Review: The plot thickens

December 20, 2011

The five-month moratorium on closing post offices and processing plants was the big news of the week, but that's not all that happened in postal world.  Here's a roundup of some of the week's news:

Occupy Oregon’s post offices: Yesterday, seventeen Oregon communities protested the Postal Service’s plan to close rural post offices across the state.  According to the Rural Organizing Project, the Occupiers carried Christmas cards, cookies and gifts of appreciation to their postal workers, as they sought to raise awareness about the impending closures and collect petition signatures.  Craig Frasier from Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity explained the protest: “The Occupy movement means advocating for the 99%.  Rural and small-town Oregonians who are economically vulnerable rely on the post office for basic needs like getting prescription medications.  As a public service, the post office prioritizes getting the job done over turning a profit.  We all must take an interest in protecting it.”

Breaking up is expensive to do: Yesterday, AT&T gave up on its $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA.  As a result, AT&T will pay a huge breakup fee to T-Mobile’s owner, Deutsche Telekom AG, for failing to complete the deal — $3 billion in cash and some of its wireless spectrum as well.  One of the seven banks advising AT&T was Evercore, the investment-banking firm founded by Roger Altman.  With the collapse of the deal, Evercore will get paid significantly less than the $18 million to $36 million it stood to make, but considering the whopping breakup fee, any payment is probably too much.  If you’re wondering what this has to do with postal world, the Postal Service recently hired a top banking firm to help “review and advise” the agency on "restructuring."  The name of the firm?  Evercore.

A moratorium — but not for all: The Postal Service's moratorium on closing post offices and processing plants until May 15  won’t stop many closings from proceeding as planned.  In a “pleading” before the PRC, the Postal Service says the moratorium does not apply to every post office, and it “will proceed with the discontinuance process for any Post Office in which a Final Determination was already posted as of December 12, 2011, including all pending appeals.  The Postal Service, however, will take the final step of closing a Post Office prior to May 16, 2012, only when that Post Office was not in operation on, and the Final Determination was posted as of, December 12, 2011.” 

It’s hard to say how many post offices fall into this category.  There are about 180 appeals still before the PRC, and a few of these post offices were “not in operation” on December 12 — like the post office in Pimmit, Virginia — so if the appeal is unsuccessful, these will be formally and finally closed during the moratorium.  There are probably others that closed for an emergency suspension and then received a final determination, so they too can close.  And the Postal Service has said nothing about more emergency suspensions occurring, so we can expect to see some of these as well, especially now that the Postal Service is pushing for lower rents and easy-termination clauses that many lessors won’t agree to.  Look for a couple of dozen post offices to close during the moratorium.

Confusing and unfair: The issue of closing post offices while the moratorium is in effect seems to be troubling the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, Ruth Goldway.  The PRC issued rulings on four appeals this week.  Three affirmed the Postal Service’s decision to close the post offices — in Fishers Landing, New York; Pinehurst, North Carolina; and West Elkton, Ohio — and one — Enloe, Texas —remanded the case back to the Postal Service for further consideration.

Chairman Goldway dissented on all three of the decisions to affirm the closing, and Commissioner Langley joined her on the Fishers Landing case.  Goldway noted various problems in the three cases —  issues over how the Postal Service calculated cost savings, for example — but the moratorium figured into her decision on Fishers Landing:

“It is confusing and perhaps unfair to require some citizens whose post offices have received a discontinuance notice as of December 12, 2011 to gather evidence and pursue an appeal to the Commission, while others whose post offices were in the review process but had not yet received a discontinuance notice by December 12, 2011 have the respite of a five month moratorium.”

In the Pinehurst decision, Chairman Goldway wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion that cited several problems with the Postal Service’s case, including failure to adequately consider the closings effect on local businesses and on the historic character of the community.  The Pinehurst post office was built in 1935 by the New Deal.  The town, a well-to-do community planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, and famous for its golf courses, considered buying the building and renting space back to keep the post office, but the Postal Service doesn’t seem interested, and private businesses are working on a deal.

Reprieved: This week the Postal Service withdrew the final determinations to close five post offices — McFarlan, North Carolina; Balm, Florida; Campaign, Tennessee; Pomfret Center, Connecticut; and North Canton, Connecticut.  As usual, the Postal Service provided no explanation for why it decided not to close these post offices.

History on the market: The historic post office in Palo Alto, California, is for sale.  Since the Postal Service plans to move the post office to a smaller retail space, that’s considered a “relocation,” not a closing, so there’s no need to go through a full discontinuance process.  The same thing is happening in Venice, California, and residents there have filed an appeal with the PRC to save their New Deal post office.  The Postal Service says the PRC has no jurisdiction in such cases, but the case has not been decided, and its implications for Palo Alto, not yet clear.

The Palo Alto post office is a real gem ((photo at the top).  Built in 1932 in the last days of the Hoover administration, it was designed by architect Birge M. Clark, whose father was a friend of the president.  When the Postmaster General saw Clark’s designs for a post office in the Spanish Colonial style, he pushed them away, saying, ‘Don’t you know what a U.S. post office looks like?”  Clark calmly replied that the President and First Lady had already approved the design over breakfast that morning.  The Postmaster quickly approved the blueprints.  Maybe the current Postmaster General will have a similar change of heart, and save the Palo Alto post office.  (More on the story here.)

RAOI — unclear, inconsistent, needs improvement: The Advisory Opinion on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) will be issued any day now, but in the meantime, the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) has already issued a report criticizing the initiative.  Entitled “Postal Service-Operated Retail Facilities Discontinuance Program,” the audit report identifies several problems with the RAOI.  A random sampling of the 3,652 post offices on the RAOI list revealed that many did not meet the criteria that put them on the list.  For example, 63 of the 93 post offices (68%) in the category of “offices earning less than $1 million in annual revenue and have five or more access points within a half mile” did not have that many access points.

Beyond such details, however, the OIG report says the Postal Service “should develop a business plan to clearly define the organization’s strategy to close approximately one-half of its Postal Service operated retail facilities over the next several years.”  That plan should clarify what specific changes will be made, how long it will take to make them, and what the anticipated benefits are. 

Amazing, isn’t it, that the Postal Service would begin to close half the country’s post offices and still not have in place an “integrated strategy” and “economic model” about what it’s up to, and why.  

Another interesting detail in the report occurs in the Postal Service's reply, a five-page letter responding to the OIG's criticisms and recommendations.  In a forgivable but revealing error, the Postal Service refers to its "universal service obligation" as the "universal service delegation."  Or maybe that's not a mistake — maybe the Postal Service is just thinking ahead to when it delegates that obligation to some private corporation.

“The good fight” goes international: Saving the post office is getting international attention.  Yours truly of “Save the Post Office” was interviewed for an article in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland´s biggest and oldest paper.  Most of the interview got cut, but there’s still a quote, though you’ll need to know German to make it out.

Phil Rubio, former postal worker and author of There's Always Work at the Post Office, has an excellent piece in the UK’s Guardian entitled “Who will deliver the US postal service from destruction?” “Don't blame the internet,” says Rubio.  “The USPS is the victim of an invented crisis.” 

And finally, best for last, Evan Kalish of “Going Postal,” is becoming an international celebrity.  This week he was featured in a terrific TV spot on BBC, and there’s more to come.  Stay tuned.

Photo credits: Palo Alto, CA post officeWalton, OR post office; AT&T & T-Mobile; Pimmit, VA post officeFishers Landing NY post office; Pinehurst, NC post office; Palo Alto post office interior; precipice cartoon.

Week in Review: What a mess

December 11, 2011

A total mess: The big news this week, of course, was the Postal Service’s request for an Advisory Opinion on its plan to “rationalize” the processing network by closing 252 processing plants.  The Postal Service says the plan will save $2.1 billion a year.  Most of that savings would be in labor costs. The materials submitted for the Advisory Opinion, as detailed as they are, say only that the reductions will be "significant," but they do not venture a specific number.  News reports are saying that 28,000 jobs will be cut (in September it was 35,000).  As this excellent article (by Ryan Foley for the AP) explains, shedding that many employees is not going to be easy: “Most workers in the facilities are represented by the American Postal Workers Union, which reached a four-year contract in May guaranteeing that its 220,000 clerks and maintenance employees cannot be laid off or transferred more than 50 miles away.”  (This table of the plants slated to close shows that most of the “receiving plants” are more than 50 miles away, some of them way more.) 

Some workers may leave via attrition — early retirement or simply quitting in disgust and despair— but in the long run, any significant reduction in the workforce will require layoffs.  At some point, Congress will need to decide what to do about the no-layoff clause in the union contracts, but before legislators can get their act together — one way or the other — we’re going to watch a real disaster unfold.  “The downsizing or the demise of the postal service,” said John Zodrow, an authority on postal employment and labor relations, “it's going to be a mess and it's going to be a mess for a long time.”

Stakeholder vs. stakeholder:  The network rationalization plan would change “service standards” so that First-Class mail and periodicals will slow down by a day or more.  The periodicals industry is very concerned about news arriving late, and Time, Inc. —“the largest magazine publisher and the largest user of Periodicals Class mail in the United States” — has given “notice of intervention” to the PRC indicating that it will participate in the Advisory Opinion.  It looks like the rationalization plan will pit stakeholder against stakeholder — publishers worried about time-sensitive mailings will oppose the plan, while direct marketers concerned about low rates will support it.  The marketers give the Postal Service more business and may have more clout, but the publishers, well, they control the media message, and they’re going to be a lot more interested in this case than they’ve been in saving small rural post offices.  (By the way, this week's Time — that's the cover — features an updated version of an excellent article by Josh Sanburn about the Postal Service that appeared online a few weeks ago.)

More movement toward a moratorium on closings: Twenty Senate Democrats have written a letter to Congressional leadership asking them to “include language in the next appropriations to prevent the USPS from closing or consolidating area mail processing facilities or rural post offices for the next six months. This six-month moratorium will give Congress the time needed to enact reforms necessary for the postal service to succeed in the 21st century.”  That’s in addition to the amendment in the Senate bill that would put a halt on post office closings while “service standards” for post offices are worked out (these standards involve distances to the nearest post office and other geographic and demographic factors).  Congressional action may just not be fast enough to stop the post office closings, however.  Nearly 600 have closed this year, and come January, the Postal Service will start issuing Final Determination notices on the post offices on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI).  They could number in the thousands.

Already optimal: There’s a very interesting blog post on the Save Our Erie Mail website by the APWU Erie Local 269.  The post challenges the basic assumption of the Postal Service consolidation plan, which basically says that “economies of scale” — consolidating lots of small plants into fewer large ones (operating 24-hours-a-day) — will be more efficient and cost less.  But there’s evidence that the size of your average processing facility is actually optimal for a business.  The post references Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, which discusses something called the Dunbar number.  The thesis is that businesses with about 150 employees fare much better than those that are larger due to the "cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable relationships.”  Not that the Postal Service is very interested in that.

Mailers perplexed: The Postal Service is sending out mixed messages on the “exigent rate increase” — that’s an increase in postal rates that goes beyond the rate of inflation, which must be approved by the PRC.  The Postal Service requested the increase in July 2010, and when the PRC turned down the request in September, the Postal Service appealed the decision in court.  The court remanded the decision back to the PRC in May 2011, but the Postal Service, under pressure from the mail industry, withdrew the request in August 2011.  Then in November, the Postal Service renewed the request (at the same time expressing hope that legislation would allow it to withdraw the request yet again).  This week a group of industry stakeholders wrote a letter to the Postmaster General expressing its displeasure: “We are perplexed. In your presentations to the mailing community in recent months, we have heard you say repeatedly that you do not want an exigent price increase; an exigent increase will not occur.”  There’s probably a tussle going on in L’Enfant Plaza, with some executives arguing that the Postal Service needs the money, while others worry that increased postal rates will drive away customers and offset any revenue increases the higher rates might yield.  Businesses hate uncertainty more than anything else, so the Postmaster General’s flip-flops may be worse than the increase itself.

A tie favors the Postal Service: This week the PRC issued an order affirming the final determination to close the post offices in Francitas, TX, and Ida, AR.  Both decisions were unusual because in each case, the vote was two to two.  The two Republican commissioners, Mark Acton and Robert Taub, voted to affirm the Postal Service’s decision to close, while the two Democratic commissioners, Ruth Goldway and Nanci Langley, voted in favor of remanding the final determination back to the Postal Service.  According to PRC rules, the tie favors the Postal Service’s decision to close the post offices. 

In the case of Francitas, the dissenting commissioners objected to the closing decision because the post office near Francitas — the office designated to receive its boxes and retail services — is in La Ward, and the La Ward post office may close in a few months under the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI).  Chairman Goldway’s dissenting opinion also faults the Postal Service for other reasons, like inaccuracies in the cost-savings analysis.  As in many other discontinuance cases, the Postal Service did its calculations using the salary of a postmaster, even though Francitas has been managed by a postmaster relief or officer-in-charge for more than three years.

In the Ida dissent, Langley and Goldway simply wrote, “The financial analysis contained in the Postal Service’s final determination is seriously flawed. It misstates the record in several places, particularly, with regard to savings related to the existing lease.”

Absolutely insane: This week the APWU honored Derrick Watson with a 2011 Community Service Award for his efforts to keep the post office in Valley Falls, RI, from closing.  He lost the fight and the post office closed in August, but he stuck with it through the PRC appeals process, and he’s not a bit sorry.  He is unhappy with the PRC’s reasons for rejecting his appeal, though.  The Postal Service had claimed the post office was losing money, but that was largely because an office gets no revenue credit for parcels it accepts when a customer buys the postage online using services like the USPS e-bay program.  Watson was one of those e-Bay sellers, so he should know.  “That's hypocritical,” says Watson. “You ask people like me to buy postage on-line, but it's not credited to that particular post office, to that zip code being used. . . . They used that as a basis to close Valley Falls, which I find absolutely insane.”

Reprieve for the Venice post office: The sale of the New Deal post office in Venice, CA, has been suspended pending the outcome of the appeal filed with the PRC.  David Williams, VP of Network Operations, had previously stated that “there is no right to further administrative or judicial review” of the decision to sell the Venice post office, but the Postal Service has decided to take the post office off the market, at least for now.  There’s an excellent story about the latest news on the Venice post office by Greta Cobar in the Free Venice Beachhead, and there’s also a video of a recent protest.

Off the list: Photo-journalist Evan Kalish of Going Postal fame filed a FOIA request a few weeks ago, and this week he got some very helpful information about the status of post office closings.  Check out the list of 307 post offices removed from the Retail Access Optimization Initiative — these post offices will remain open (at least for the foreseeable future).  (We’ll update the Save the Post Office list and map using this new info asap.)

A not-so-small price to pay for the truth: The Pimmit branch of the Falls Church, VA, post office closed a few weeks ago, but attorney Elaine Mittleman has filed an appeal with the PRC.  In September, she submitted a FOIA request for Postal Service records concerning the decision to close the post office.  This week, she got a reply.  The Postal Service says that she does not fit the category of those exempt from paying fees for research time and copying (that would include journalists, academics doing research for their institution, and a few others), so she’ll have to pay the full fees.  Here’s the good part: The Postal Service has estimated the computer processing and personnel costs at a minimum of  $21,191.70, and they want her to pay half up-front: “Please submit your check or money order,” says the USPS letter, “in the amount of $10,595.85 made payable to the ‘U.S. Postal Service.’”  Right.  (By the way, for a related story on FOIA and appealing a closing, check out "They're Coming for Your Post Office.")

Corrections re: Hammond: In a post last week about President Obama’s nomination of Tony Hammond to the PRC, we wrote that he would serve a regular four-year term on the PRC, but that’s incorrect.   The regular term of a commissioner is six years, but more important, as we learned in a meeting of the PRC this week (podcast here), if approved by Congress, Hammond would finish out the term of Dan Blair, just until November 2012.  He could serve an additional year if no one has been confirmed to replace him, and there's a good chance that a commissioner confirmed to fill out a term like this would be on the short list for nomination to a full term, so Hammond could end up on the PRC for many years to come.  Sorry for the errors, but the main point of the post stands:  Appointing a Democrat would have been better for postal workers and communities facing the loss of their post office and processing plant.

Photo credits: Mail handler in Sioux City, IA (closed in October); this week's Time magazineErie, PA mail processing facility protest (being studied for closure); Seattle postal workersDirect Marketing Association websitegirl & po boxes in the Francitas post office (closed); Derrick WatsonVenice CA post office lobbyFOIA cartoon.

Week in Review: AMPs, 10-K, PRC, CBRE, VPO, GAO & OWS

November 21, 2011

It was another busy week in Postal World — post offices keep closing, plant consolidation plans keep rolling on, the GAO keeps coming up with studies, and the PRC struggles to keep up with the appeals and Advisory Opinion.  Here are just some of the highlights:

Hearing in Harlem: The New York Metro Area APWU announced that on Tuesday, Nov. 22, there will be a hearing to discuss the closing of the Lincolnton post office in New York’s Harlem.  The meeting is at 6 p.m., but community members, postal workers, and union leaders will be assembling for an informational picket outside the station beginning at 5:30 p.m.The post office is located at 2268 Fifth Avenue at 138th Street.  (More info here.) [CORRECTION: The Lincolnton Station is not being studied for closure: the meeting was at Lincolnton, but it was about the nearby College Station, which is on the RAOI list.)]

AMP’d & Excessed: The Postal Service continues with its AMP consolidation studies.  In La Crosse WI, employees are being AMP’d and looking at a commute of over 150 miles to St. Paul MN.  Some employees were apparently excessed to La Crosse, and now they’re returning to their own plant.  The Williamsport PA plant had its public meeting on consolidation on Nov. 17.  A postal worker writes in to Save the Post Office asking, How will Harrisburg handle all the mail as well as that of other plants that may be closed?  It’s definitely going to mean delays — “not to mention all the families who depend on their jobs to pay their mortgages and raise their families and who cannot pack up & relocate.”  There’s a petition to save the Williamsport plant here, and more info here.)

It’s hard to understand why the Postal Service insists on playing musical chairs with processing plants.   Consolidation kills jobs, breaks up families, causes crazy commutes, and hurts communities.  It’s not even clear they save money.  This in-depth study concludes that “simply consolidating plants is not likely to be an effective strategy for restructuring the USPS network with the object of increasing aggregate productivity.  Most plant consolidations will actually decrease the volume that can be processed by the same equipment and labor force in the consolidated plants.”  For more on AMP studies, the Postal Service provides information about its “streamlining” plans here, and the APWU keeps its updates here.

No “undertaking” in Venice: Efforts to save the historic New Deal post office in Venice CA continue, but the Postal Service is sticking by its decision.  USPS VP David Williams informed citizens of Venice that, “while sympathetic” to their concerns, he would “not set aside the Postal Service’s prior decision.”  The National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, but the Postal Service does not consider closing the post office “an undertaking” that will change the character or use of the property.  Williams say an “undertaking” would occur only when the Postal Service adopts a plan to reuse the building or transfer it to private ownership.  An attorney has taken on the case on a pro bono basis, so perhaps the PRC will hear the case (an appeal has been filed) or maybe it will end up in court. Williams says no way, and his letter to Venice ends as follows: “This is the final decision of the Postal Service with respect to this matter, and there is no right to further administrative or judicial review of this decision.”  (More on the Venice fight here.)

Post Offices “in contract”: A couple of weeks ago, the Postal Service and its partner CBRE put up a new website advertising properties for sale.  On day one, there were 90 buildings listed, but today there are 48.  Perhaps the other 42 were removed because they were sold, but it might be because the Postal Service was in such a rush to get the site up it didn’t even have a photo for all the post offices it wants to sell.  (At least now the “About USPS” page doesn’t say “Under Construction” anymore.)  Several historic post offices have apparently found a buyer.  The site lists as “in contract” the post offices in Fairfield CT; the 31 Street in Washington DC; Gulfpost MS; and 358 West Harrison Street in Chicago, IL.  It’s really a crime that the Postal Service so undervalues the country’s architectural riches and is selling off these historic buildings on the cheap.

How much is the Postal Service worth?  Speaking of undervaluing postal assets, the Postal Service doesn’t seem to think any of its post office properties are worth much.  This week the Postal Service issued its annual financial report (Form 10-K) for fiscal year 2011 (ending Oct. 1).  Not surprisingly, the headlines focused on the $5 billion deficit, but there’s another number in the report worth a look — the value of USPS assets (buildings, land, equipment, and intellectual property).  The Postal Service owns over 8,000 facilities, and the 10-K says they’re worth $24 billion — the amount it cost to build or purchase them — minus depreciation. The 10-K adds $3 billion for land and $20 billion for equipment, but then subtracts $29 billion for “depreciation and amortization.”  A note explains that the historic buildings have been depreciated over 75 years, using the straight-line method.  In other words, the buildings are worth nothing in the Postal Service’s calculations, and there are no records on fair market valuations or tax assessments.

But the value of many postal buildings has appreciated considerably, and, as a recent USPS OIG report noted, their fair market value far exceeds purchase price.  For example, the National Postal Museum cost $47 million and it now has an assessed tax value of $304 million.  The post office in Fairfield cost $1 million, but it is “in contract” now for $4.4 million.  So why is the Postal Service saying its properties have depreciated to almost nothing, when they’re worth several times what they cost?  Why undervalue assets like that, unless, perhaps, the folks running the show are thinking ahead to when it’s time to put a price tag on the whole postal system, and they want their friends to be able to buy it cheap?  How much is the Postal Service worth, anyway?  You won’t find an answer to that in the 10-K.

They’re not taking it in Malden: The post office in Malden WA is being studied for closure, and citizens aren’t happy with the “facts” presented by the Postal Service.  A website discussion lists many of the complaints, and we’ve heard others too:  The proposal to close says there are a number of alternative sites within a short distance, but the nearest is seven miles; it says the building is 56 years old, but it’s over a hundred; it lists as “advantages” that box holders won’t have to pay fees, but their boxes are free right now; many farmers who use the post office did not receive notices of the proposal to close, the announcement about a meeting, or the questionnaire; the meeting was scheduled at an inconvenient time; seniors and those with disabilities cannot wait in the cold and snow to do postal business with the carrier.  Plus, Washington is a “vote by mail” state, so the Malden post office serves as a de-facto polling location for the surrounding area, and closing the post office amounts to voter suppression.  The community has written its elected officials, and it's not going to lose the post office without a fight.

Rug pulled out in DuBois: Four years ago, when the Postal Service tried to close the post office in DuBois NE, the town raised more than $25,000 to buy the post office building so that it could offer the USPS a cheaper lease.  That lease runs through January 2017, and the town thought the post office was safe till then.  But now the DuBois post office is being studied for closure under the RAOI.  The nearest post office is about a ten-mile drive (twenty round trip), so closing the DuBois post office would be a great inconvenience and a big loss to the town.  A town board member said that the five-year lease made everyone in town feel like the post office was there to stay, "and everything was set up for that.  And now we feel like we're getting the rug pulled out from under us." 

Only a pawn in their game: The Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) remanded two closing decisions (Innis LA and Monroe AR) back to the Postal Service for further consideration, a sign perhaps that the commissioners are taking a tougher line with the Postal Service.  Plus, another post office was spared when the Postal Service withdrew the Final Determination to close the post office in Pomfret Center CT.  The Postal Service doesn’t say why, so the cause for the reversal will remain a mystery.  Senator Lieberman from Connecticut is the chair of the senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, so maybe he had something to do with the Pomfret decision. 

Along those lines, in July the Postal Service withdrew the Final Determination to close the La Mesa post office in San Diego, shortly after an appeal was filed by the president of the San Diego Area Local of the APWU.  In August, the Postal Service reversed its decision to close the post office in East Camden AR, perhaps because numerous Department of Defense contractors (like Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Raytheon) are served in a nearby industrial park, or perhaps because Senator John Boozman got involved (in a conference call with USPS personnel).  Let’s hope politicians, the Postal Service, and others in power are not using post offices as pawns in their game. 

In the PRC mailbag: The Postal Regulatory Commission released its log of inquiries over the past quarter and for the fiscal year.  Big surprise — the PRC has received a ton of correspondence about post office closures.  The PRC’s Public Inquiry Log for the last quarter (July 1 to Sept. 30) shows a total of 3,050 items, and 2,500 of them concern post office closings (2,132 of them related to the RAOI).  For the fiscal year, over half of the 5,600 inquires were about the closings.

Bulletin boards banned: As if the Postal Service didn't have enough to worry about, now they're cracking down on bulletin boards.  You could read the writing on the wall in late September when, in cross-examination before the PRC,  Postal Service lawyers asked Lorhrville, Iowa's Mayor Donny Hobbes about the kind of things being posted on the board in his town's post office.  The question came up because the mayor had mentioned how the post office was a place where local news was exchanged, like on the bulletin board.  Now USPS supervisors in Capitol Heights MD have told postmasters in their district that bulletin boards with community announcements are banned in post offices.  The board can only have "official postal and other governmental notices and announcements."  But the USPS seems unclear about the rule.  A spokesperson in Baltimore said community announcements were fine so long as the bulletin board was in the outer lobby near the P.O. boxes, but the spokesperson in the Washington district said there are no exceptions.  While the USPS works things out, the post office in Tracys Landing MD is going its own way.  As the local news put it, "There wasn't exactly an uproar in Tracys Landing, more like a quiet rebellion.  In a great American tradition, people decided a rule was stupid and ignored it."

Another VPO: While the Postal Service works on ruining its reputation with silly bans on bulletin boards, it's still trying to look good by opening up cute "Village Post Offices."   The fifth VPO opened last week, and it's in a really lovely hardware store in Glenn, Michigan, named Gerstner Hardware and Vintage Specialties.  The store has been around since 1918, it’s located in a beautiful historic building, and it actually housed the post office sixty years ago, so it was the perfect spot for a VPO.  The town is lucky the owners of the hardware store were willing to take on the job since they won’t make any profit from stamp sales, and they needed to do some remodeling and add a handicap ramp.  A local contractor and architect have even been pitching in to help with the work.  Sounds like a great community.

The wrinkle in the story is that the Glenn post office closed under an “emergency suspension” because of a “loss of a lease on the property,” even though the post office had been in the building for “half a century.”  In August, when the Postal Service informed residents of the suspension, the letter said, “the recommended change is tentative and will not lead to a formal proposal unless we conclude that it will provide a maximum degree of regular and effective service."
 Now that a VPO is in place, one wonders if the Postal Service will ever go through the formal discontinuance process. 

Herr strikes again: Phillip Herr has written 15 or 20 GAO reports over the past three years, many of them about closing post offices.  Herr is so prolific on the subject that his footnotes usually reference his own studies since there’s no one else to cite.  Herr’s latest, “Action Needed to Maximize Cost-Saving Potential of Alternatives to Post Offices,” is about how the alternatives to a post office — kiosks, stamps on line, contract postal units, village post offices, postal counters in chain stores, etc. — are less expensive to operate than post offices and should thus be the future of postal retail. 

The report also discusses the problems with these alternatives, and it’s worth reading for that alone.  As Herr notes, some alternative outlets charge more for postage than you’d pay at a post office.  Contract postal units, which seem like the perfect alternative, are on the decline because they can be terminated, with or without notice, by either the operator or the Postal Service, and they get a lot of “resistance from postal labor” (which sees them as a way around union work) and higher costs (than, say, stamps-on-consignment at a chain store).  Herr seems frustrated by the slow pace of post office closings and the inability of USPS officials “to provide any details about actual cost savings resulting from their efforts to expand retail alternatives.” 

Man of the hour: While Phil Herr is busy trying to close post offices, there's a young man working hard to keep them open.  Evan Kalish is a 25-year-old photo-journalist who's been taking weekend breaks from grad school to travel around the country photographing post offices as fast as he can.  His photos call attention to the beauty of every post office, whether it's a grand old historic building or a modest vernacular structure, and they radiate his love for post offices.  Last week Evan was featured in the Washington Post print edition and an excellent article in Time.  Today he’s off for an interview with NPR, and the BBC is interested as well.  Check out his latest post on Going Postal about island post offices off the coast of Maine. 

Keeping Wall Street Occupied: It’s easy to blame L’Enfant Plaza for the problems facing the Postal Service, but the big Wall Street corporations can take some credit, too.  They lobby Congress for legislation that’s good for their profits even if it’s bad for the Postal Service, and they are the main beneficiaries of the $12 billion the Postal Service outsourced last year, much of it at the expense of postal workers, who are now looking at layoffs because there's supposedly not enough work for them.  This video has some thoughts about how to send these corporations a message and do some good for the Postal Service at the same time.

(Photo credits: Lincolnton NY post office [Evan Kalish]; Williamsport PA rally; Venice CA post office; Gulfport MS post office vintage postcard; Fairfield CT post office; Malden WA post office [Nick Bachman]; DuBois NE post office (to the right of the bank); bulletin board in Tracys Landing MD; VPO in Glenn MI; Pomfret Center CT post office; Retail Alternatives; Squirrel Island community post office.)

The Week in Review: Rallies, briefs, complaints, letters, and road trips

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.

Towson Post Office

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.)

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