What to do when you learn your post office may close
September 18, 2011
Over the past couple of months, some 4,400 communities have learned that their post office may soon close. Some post offices that had been previously initiated for closure studies are closing right now. Many communities have received their "final determination" notices saying the post office will close in a few weeks. Many others are in the middle of the “public comment” period, and they are having meetings with postal management, filling out surveys, doing petition drives, and holding rallies. In late July, when it announced its closure plans, the Postal Service said it would take about ten weeks to get the process going for all the post offices on its two lists. In just a few weeks, then, the process will be well underway for all 4,500 communities, and by the end of the year, we could see post offices closing by the hundreds.
Some of these communities are small rural towns with populations numbering in the hundreds, while others are urban neighborhoods where the post office might serve thousands of people. If the average of these post offices served just 250 patrons, over a million people are looking at losing their post office. You may be one of them.
Fighting the Postal Service when it has its sights set on your post office is no easy task. And it may seem futile too. Many people have complained that it felt like the Postal Service had decided to close the post office even before the community was invited to weigh in. You will also have the right to appeal the Postal Service’s decision to close your post office, but those appeals haven’t been having much luck either.
Despite the odds against them, most communities are putting up a fight. Below are some suggestions about what you can do to maybe, just maybe, keep your post office open.
Much of the following comes from an excellent guide called the Red Book, put out by the National Association of Postmasters of the U.S. (NAPUS). So it’s a good idea to start by looking at the Red Book, which you can find here.
By the way, if you have been through this process or know something about it, please send a note using the “contact” link and we’ll add your suggestions to this page.
Learn the procedures
The first thing to do is learn about the Postal Service’s procedures for closing a post office. The process is described in the Code of Federal Regulations associated with Title 39. It’s called 39 CFR part 241, and you can find it here. The Postal Service also provides its employees with a handbook called the USPS Discontinuance Guide.
The Red Book does an excellent job explaining the process, but if you spend some time with these additional documents, you’ll get an even better idea of what’s ahead and what role your community can play at each stage of the process. The procedures may seem overly complex and difficult to understand, but that could work to your advantage, since all that complexity means it’s easy for USPS management to make mistakes along the way. Knowing the procedures will help you notice when the Postal Service makes missteps, and, should it decide to close your post office, you can note these in your appeal petition to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC).
So there's no need to wait until you receive a “final determination” notice to start working on an appeal. You could be taking notes, building your case, and watching for Postal Service errors from the very beginning. Plus, if you do need to file an appeal, it will save a lot of time if you’ve been working on it from the beginning. You could even read a couple of appeals dockets (available on the PRC website — just scroll down on this page to the list of dockets that begin with A-2011) to see how the end-stage of the process works. Knowing where things are heading will help you get it right from the beginning.
NAPUS also has retired postmasters available who can help explain the process and advise you on how to make your case to the Postal Service. You can contact NAPUS for help finding one here.
The steps in the process are as follows:
1. Initiating a closure: The Postal Service evaluates if it wants to consider your post office for closure. The criteria for this decision are not the same as it will use when it decides whether to close the post office. The criteria for initiating a closure study include a vacancy in the postmaster position, insufficient customer demand, availability of other postal facilities, earned workload below a certain level (basically, just not a lot of revenue coming in), and an emergency suspension. If your post office is on one of the two lists that came out in July 2011, the Postal Service has already gone through this stage of the process and decided to proceed with a closing study for your post office.
2. Public Notice of Proposal: Having decided to proceed with the closing study, the Postal Service must share its decision with patrons in a “Public Notice of Proposal” to study the post office for closure. Typically patrons will see a notice posted in the post office, or they will receive a note in the mailbox, or both. The study period lasts at least 60 days. In the past, it often went longer, but the Postal Service is moving quickly these days, so take note of the day the public notice was posted, and mark your calendar for 60 days later.
3. Public Comment period: The study period should include a public hearing with USPS representatives, the distribution of questionnaires, and other information gathering by the Postal Service. This is the time that the community needs to do its work — contacting elected officials, holding rallies, gathering petition signatures, etc.
4. Internal Review: After this 60-day period, the Postal Service evaluates the information it’s gathered and makes a decision. It could take weeks or months, but the Postal Service could decide in a matter of days. (It’s been moving so quickly that sometimes the closing decision looks like it was written up even before the 60-day study period was over.) To make this decision, the Postal Service implements a different set of criteria than it used to initiate the process. The decision to actually close the post office is based on these criteria: (i) the effect of the closing on the community served by the post office; (ii) the effect on Postal Service employees; (iii) whether the closing is consistent with the policy that the Postal Service “shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining”; (iv) the economic savings to the Postal Service resulting from the closing; and (v) other factors the Postal Service determines are necessary.
5. Final Determination Notice: If the Postal Service decides to close the post office, it must post a “Final Determination” and make the materials on which its decision was based available to the public. At this point, the public — and that can be a single individual who uses the post office — has 30 days to file an appeal with the Postal Regulatory Commission. It must be received by the PRC within 30 days, which is why it’s important to anticipate this moment and be ready.
6. Appeals process: The PRC has 120 days to consider and decide upon the appeal, but the Postal Service is not required to wait to hear the decision — it can close the post office 60 days after the day the Final Determination was posted. More details on the appeals process are below.
Every community is unique, and no one knows better than the people in your town or neighborhood how best to get organized, but here are some suggestions, many of them from the Red Book:
- Call a meeting of local residents and start making plans. You might form a citizens group, “Save the Optimo Post Office.” Identify a couple of leaders and a spokesperson to work with the media.
- Start a petition: There are several websites that make it easy to do on-line petitions, but it might be better to do an old-fashioned petition with hand-written signatures. Many people are reluctant to put their name and address on an online petition, and you’ll miss people who don’t use the Internet. Standing outside the post office to get signatures will also give you a chance to talk to people about what’s going on.
- Consider doing some fundraising. It will help to have a fund for photocopying, mailings, perhaps hiring a stenographer for the public meeting or an attorney to help with the appeal.
- Hire an attorney, or perhaps you can convince your local officials to hire one.
- Get the media involved. Contact local news media, develop a contact list, send out press releases, etc. The more media attention you get, the more pressure there will be on your local USPS managers.
- Hold a rally in front of the post office to get some media attention.
- Start a website or a Facebook page. Many communities have found that the Internet is a useful tool for exchanging information and keeping as many people involved as possible.
- Contact influential people in the community — politicians, judges, ministers, businesspeople — and get them to contact elected representatives.
- Send letters to your elected officials. The Red Book provides some easy-to-modify templates.
- Keep a diary about everything that happens.
Focus on the USPS questionnaire and public hearing
As part of the process, the Postal Service is required to solicit information and opinions from the community. The Postal Service usually circulates a questionnaire — make sure you get as many people as possible returning this questionnaire.
The Postal Service is also required to hold a public hearing, so get ready for it. Get the word out and do what you can to make sure attendance is good.
When the Postal Service announces the hearing, call a separate meeting on the same day, an hour or two beforehand, so people can attend both meetings without too much inconvenience. For the first meeting, consider asking a retired postmaster to speak, and figure out which citizens are good speakers and make sure they have enough time to talk at the hearing with the USPS representatives. Get your “talking points” in order so your case is presented as effectively as possible.
You will want to make sure you have an excellent record of the meeting, preferably by videotaping or hiring someone experienced at recording detailed minutes. The Postal Service will probably have someone taking notes at the meeting, but don’t think you’ll be given a copy of those notes — many communities have found that the Postal Service refuses to shares its minutes. Be sure to record the names and titles of the postal officials conducting the meeting. Contact local media and invite elected officials or their representatives to attend the meeting as well.
At the meeting, don’t be lulled when the Postal Service representative says that they are only studying your post office for closure and a decision has not been made yet. That’s just a way to quell the anger in the room.
And don’t buy those promises that your post office will be replaced by a “village post office.” These are not post offices. They are contracted arrangements with a local business, and they offer very few of the services of a real post office. Plus, it’s very easy to close one, with none of the procedures required for closing a real post office. So your community may have a “village post office” for a year or two, and when it closes without fanfare, your community will be helpless to do anything about it.
In closing a post office, the Postal Service must examine several criteria. As noted above, the main factors are the effect on postal workers, the effect on the community, cost savings, and the requirement for a “maximum degree of effective and regular postal services."
The effect on postal workers is usually minimized by the Postal Service, which says the workers are just being transferred to another facility, so there’s not much for you to say about that, but you can address the three other criteria.
You may be able to challenge the Postal Service on its claims about how much money it will save by closing the post office, but the Postal Service has all the numbers on revenue and expenses, and it doesn’t like to share them. So you may have a hard time focusing on that aspect of the argument. Nonetheless, find out all you can about the salaries of postal workers, the number of box holders, annual revenue and expenses for the past few years, whether the building is owned or leased, the annual rent, the date the lease ends and how much money the Postal Service might owe, whether or not there’s an “easy-out” clause in the lease (so the Postal Service doesn’t owe rent for the remaining years on the lease), and so on. Many communities learn that even though the Postal Service says it’s losing money hand over fist, their own post office is actually running in the black, and that can be part of your argument.
You can also focus on the law’s requirement that the Postal Service provide a “maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” The Postal Service will argue that there’s another post office just a few miles away, and that there are other retail outlets nearby, in a Wal-Mart of supermarket. Be prepared to make an argument about why these other facilities are inadequate, seriously inconvenient, and inaccessible to a portion of the population.
The main thing you can do is focus on the effects on your community. Gather your own data: how many people have boxes, how many walk to the post office and how often, how long it takes to drive to nearby postal facilities (not just how far they are), how many people will need to make that drive and how often, and so on. While the Postal Service does not regularly check census data in doing a closure study, you can do it: check your census data and see what kind of community you have — is the number of seniors, low-income people, and minorities higher than average? How might local businesses be impacted? You can even do your own questionnaire-survey and gather data that the Postal Service chose not to include in its questionnaire.
File an appeal
If you’ve started preparing for the appeal case from day one, it will be much easier to actually submit the appeal when the time comes. Keep a detailed diary of everything, beginning to end — the date when the community was first told the post office was being initiated for a closure study, the date when questionnaires went out, the way the public was notified of the town meeting, and so on. The Postal Service can be challenged if it did not do a good job making sure the public knew what was going on at each step of the process.
If the Postal Service makes a “Final Determination” to close your post office, a posted notice of such action must be provided, and all patrons have 30 days to submit an appeal in writing to the Secretary of the Postal Regulatory Commission. You cannot file an appeal before the posting of the Final Determination, even if you know what the outcome will be (or even if your post office has already closed due to an emergency suspension — although the PRC may sometimes listen to an appeal if the post office has been closed for a long time).
The PRC cannot decide to keep your post office open after the Postal Service has decided to close it. It can only tell the Postal Service to take another look. And keep in mind from the very beginning that the criteria for closing a post office are not the same as the criteria for an appeal. The PRC’s criteria involve how the Postal Service came to its conclusion to close the post office. The PRC may find fault with the Postal Service’s decision to close the post office only if it finds the decision to be “(A) arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law; (B) without observance of procedure required by law; or (C) unsupported by substantial evidence on the record” (39 U.S.C. 404(d)(5)).
When you initiate the process with the PRC, take note of two documents. One is called Form 61, in which you are asked for a concise statement of your arguments in support of the appeal. The other is called an “Application for Suspension Pending Review,” which will give you an opportunity to request that the post office remain open while the appeal is being evaluated. That process could take as long as 120 days, yet the Postal Service could close your post office 60 days after the Final Determination.
The PRC has a staff of people called “Public Representatives” who can help you with the appeal. They are like public defenders, and they can explain the process and help you prepare the documents. A list of these people can be found here. You should also know that the PRC is working on changing its procedures for an appeal, largely to make it easier to file one. The possible rule changes are described here, and a blog post about them is here.
It is important to note that the PRC does not determine whether a post office should be closed or remain open. The PRC can only “remand” the closing decision back to the Postal Service for another look. The final decision remains with the Postal Service. But “winning” the appeal would be a great accomplishment — it doesn’t happen very often — and the Postal Service might just decide it’s not worth further effort on its part, and your community might just be able to keep its post office.
The appeals document can be submitted either by mail or by the electronic docket filing process. Those submitted by mail must be postmarked within 30 days of the posting of the Final Determination notice. The address isOffice Of The Secretary Postal Regulatory Commission 901 New York Ave NW Suite 200 Washington DC 20268-0001
The PRC also will provide detailed information regarding filing briefs.
Documents and Links
- NAPUS Redbook
- 39 CFR part 241 — the closing procedures
- USPS Discontinuance Guide— more on the closing procedures
- PRC Appeals process (note these may change in October 2011, as discussed here)
- Documents for recent appeals to the PRC:
- Akron OH (the appeal brief is here, and the PRC decision, here)
- Gwynedd PA (the appeal brief; the decision)
- A 2009 report on Post Office closings (note that the process changed in 2011)
- “They’re coming for your post office”: One man’s story about fighting the USPS
- Blog posts about appeals stories in Akron, Ohio, and two other recent cases