Coming sooner or later: An advisory opinion on modes of delivery


A couple of days ago, residents of Vermont — and apparently other states across the country as well — received a letter from the Postal Service requesting that they convert from mailboxes at the side of their door to a mailbox along the road.  The letter cites the advantages of curbline delivery — the postman doesn't have to deal with dogs, your mail is not exposed to rain or snow, and it's cheaper for the Postal Service — and it provides helpful information about what height to place the mailbox and how far from the road surface to locate the box. 

When the USPS Board of Governors announced two weeks ago that it intended to speed up cost-cutting measures in order to deal with the mounting deficit, there were no details about what those measures would be.  It now looks as though changing how the mail is delivered will be a key part of the stepped-up plan.  

If you've been getting your mail delivered to the door, expect a switch to curbside delivery.  If you already have curbside delivery, you could be converted to a cluster box unit located down the road.  The goal is eventually to get everyone on cluster boxes.

Because it knows customers won't like the changes, the Postal Service has not exactly embraced the conversion plan in the past.  But the proposal is part of legislation before the House (HR 2309), and it's described in detail in a USPS OIG report entitled “Modes of Delivery.” 

The OIG explains that in urban areas it costs $353 to deliver to the door (annually, per delivery point), while it costs only $224 to deliver to the curb, and $160 to a cluster box.  Moving everyone to cluster boxes could therefore save nearly $10 billion.  (There’s a post about the report and the whole topic here.)

Converting to easier modes of delivery might be safer and more convenient for letter carriers, but it won't be great for carriers overall.  Even if the Postal Service came up with a partial conversion plan aimed at only a portion of the OIG's total estimate — say $3 billion a year — that savings would come almost entirely from cutting jobs.  Figuring an average salary of $50,000 plus benefits, a savings of $3 billion would mean eliminating about 40,000 jobs.  There are about 250,000 rural and city letter carriers right now.  That means about one in six jobs would be lost.  (And you can add that to the job losses from eliminating Saturday delivery.)


Changing the rules for delivery

For years now, the Postal Service has been gradually shifting over to cluster box units in new residential developments, but it's not supposed to change delivery at existing addresses without the customer's permission.  According to the “agreement clause” in section 631.6 of the Postal Service’s Postal Operations Manual (POM), a customer's signature must be obtained before conversion from one mode of delivery to another.  That's why last week's letter from the Postal Service just requests that customers put up roadside mailboxes rather than requiring it.

There are circumstances, however, under which the Postal Service may make changes on its own, such as when the safety of carriers is a concern.  The Postal Service has been using the safety issue and other explanations in order to begin implementation of the delivery plan.  Over the past few months, there have been numerous news articles about changes in the mode of delivery in neighborhoods and communities across the country.  

Eventually, there will be so many such stories that it will become clear that the Postal Service is making a change in service on a nationwide scale.  At some point, the Postal Service will need to submit a request for an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission.  As part of the request, the Postal Service will probably seek to revise the POM so that it can do conversions on an involuntary basis wherever and whenever it wants.

The Postal Service did the same thing in 2011 when it was closing post offices on a regular basis.  In the months before it presented its Retail Access Optimization Initiative — the plan to close 3,700 post offices — the Postal Service closed nearly two hundred offices, all the while claiming there was no plan and hence no need to request an advisory opinion.  Eventually, the number of closures reached a critical mass, and the Postal Service had no choice but to present a plan to the PRC for an opinion.

It's only a matter of time before the Postal Service presents a plan to the PRC about changing its policies regarding modes of delivery.  In the meantime, the conversions are happening on an ad-hoc basis, as if there were no nationwide plan in place. 


Threatening dogs in Fairway

In June, residents of a neighborhood in Reinhardt Estates, in Fairway, Kansas, saw their door-to-door mail delivery replaced with cluster boxes as a response to what the Postal service characterized as threatening behavior from area dogs. 

Residents objected, contending that the cluster box solution was too big of a step to take to deal with a situation posed by only a handful of homes.  It could have required the offending homeowners to get curbside boxes or required them to get their own PO boxes instead of forcing the entire neighborhood to use the cluster boxes.  

The previous letter carrier said that she had never had problems with dogs in Rinehardt, and the homeowners whose dogs were supposedly the problem offered several alternatives to avoid forcing their neighbors to switch to cluster boxes, like keeping their dogs inside, building a traditional fence, getting a PO box, or getting a curbside mailbox.  According to an elected official in town, the reply from the Postal Service was essentially, “Too late.”  


Dire straits in Lead

In September, residents in Lead, South Dakota, learned that they would see their individual mail boxes replaced with cluster boxes.  The manager of post office operations for the area explained that the Postal Service planned to install sixteen of the units around town because the agency is in dire straits and needs to cut costs.  

The Postal Service also explained that the cluster boxes would improve safety for mail carriers, especially in the winter, since "some mailboxes are currently placed dangerously close to the road, while sidewalks near others are in serious need of repair."  

The POOM said that the elderly or those with disabilities who cannot get their mail on their own will be able to apply for hardship deliveries, so that the mail can still be brought to their door.  But those permits would be issued only if certain conditions were met — such as nobody else living in the home who can get the mail — and the permit is good for only one year and then needs to be renewed. 


Overzealous in Melrose Park

Residents of Melrose Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida got a letter in the mail from the postmaster telling them that had 30 days to replace the mailbox by their door and erect a curbside postal box instead.  It turns out it was all a mistake.  As a Postal Service representative explained, "It appears that an overzealous employee with good intentions distributed the letter without approval of the District Office to customers in the Melrose Park area."  


Budget constraints in Fort Carson and Salem

In October, a news item reported that in Fort Carson, Colorado, the Postal Service has been gradually changing over from curbside delivery to cluster box units, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood and block-by-block basis.  The Postal Service customer relations coordinator explained the change by referring to "budget constraints," and he also suggested it would reduce the wait time at the post office.

In November, in Granbury, Texas, some 125 residents who have had mail delivered to their door have been asked to place mailboxes curbside.  In a written statement provided to the Hood County News, Postal Service spokesman Sam Bolen explained that the Postal Service has been “reevaluating and consolidating mail processing and delivery operations nationwide to save money on overhead, transportation costs and delivery costs.”  Residents got a “final notice” letters saying that they had until November 23 to place a mailbox by the curb, or else her mail delivery would be stopped.  The news doesn’t explain why these customers had been singled out.


Tornado in Joplin

In Joplin, Missouri, there was a tornado in May 2011, and City officials granted permission to the Postal Service to install cluster boxes on a temporary basis, but in March 2012 postal officials decided to make the change permanent.   The union even filed a grievance because residents had not given permission for the conversion. 

City officials aren't very happy either.  It seems that the Postal Service installed a cluster box unit on a city easement without permission.  A supervisor for customer relations at the Postal Service said simply, "“The city approved the current locations on a temporary basis. The actual change in the mode of delivery is within the authority of the postal service.”  Even more conversions are planned in other neighborhoods in Joplin. 


Strictly voluntary in Salem

In Salem, Missouri, the new Acting Postmaster plans to begin sending letters to postal customers and making house calls to pitch his plan to convert customers to curbside delivery.  Compliance with the change is strictly voluntary, but customers are being asked for support in this “service improvement initiative,” and if they choose not to go along, it will not impact their ability to receive mail. 

No timeframe has yet announced to have the curbside delivery plan fully implemented.  Businesses will be asked to install an exterior box so that Saturday and after-hour deliveries can be done to eliminate mail having to be returned and held at the post office for later delivery.  Postal customers who are willing to support the curbside service are being asked to sign and return the letter in a self-addressed postage-paid envelope provided by the USPS.


Historic ban ignored in Avondale Estates

Since the early 1970s, Avondale Estates, Georgia, has banned roadside mailboxes in the historic district for aesthetic reasons.  But the Postal Service now says that while longtime residents can maintain door delivery, new residents will have to put up curbside mailboxes or pick up their mail at the post office. 

The city attorney fired off an angry letter to the Postal Service, saying, "The City of Avondale Estates and its residents do not agree to convert to curbside delivery."  He notes that curbside delivery is contrary to city ordinances, harmful to the historic character of the district, and in violation of USPS policies because residents have not given their permission for the conversion.  A Postal Service spokesman explained that the agency is trying to cut costs.  


Construction and crime in Moline

In Moline, Illinois, residents were upset that their mail delivery was converted to cluster box rather than their homes.  The Postal Service has installed four units on city rights-of-way, which is causing safety concerns since they’re close to the street. 

The Postal Service says that the cluster boxes were installed during street construction over the summer, but now they’re permanent.  In a letter to residents, the postmaster stated, “To recover the cost, when construction is done your area will stay cluster-type delivery.” 

The Postal Service also switched over to cluster boxes in another neighborhood in Moline.  In this case, the Postal Service said the reason was it's a high-crime area and there was concern about the safety of the letter carriers.  Some residents think that's just an excuse and the real reason is saving money.  Unfortunately, at least one resident thinks it's the letter carriers' fault — they're too lazy to walk the hills to deliver to homes.


Tempting targets everywhere

One of the problems with cluster boxes is that they are a tempting target for thieves, and the news is filled with articles about thefts, like this one in Sacramento, California, where someone took a crowbar to the boxes.  In Larimer County, Colorado, the sheriff’s office is asking for the public’s help in finding who has been breaking into cluster mailboxes in Fort Collins and Bellvue. 

In areas where there has been a lot of new residential development, like Phoenix, the transition to cluster boxes has been going on for years, and according to the New York Times, "the boxes have proved a boon for identity thieves."  

"You can jimmy one open and get everyone's mail at the same time," said Todd C. Lawson, an assistant attorney general in Phoenix who specializes in identity theft prosecutions.  After numerous break-ins, the Postal Service spent $12 million on reinforced mailboxes, but many communities still have the old ones.

The conversion to cluster boxes is not going to please the tens of millions of postal customers who now enjoy delivery to the door or curb, but that may not matter.  The Postal Service seems more interested in keeping its big customers happy with low rates, even if it's at the expense of the average citizen.

(Update, 1/28/13: Post and Parcel has a piece about the Postmaster General's plans to consolidate delivery points.)

Photo credits: delivery to a cluster box unitthreatening dogs in Fairway, KS; cluster box in Lead, SD; cluster box in Fort Carson, COcluster boxes in Joplin, MO; curbside box in Avondale Estates; cluster box unit in Moline, IL; high security cluster box in Phoenix.