BY MARK JAMISON
Off the Georgia coast just above the Florida border lies Jekyll Island, a popular tourist destination that boasts a beautiful beach, a historic district, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. A couple of hundred miles up the road is Augusta, Georgia, where the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, grew up.
The Postal Service has a new strategy for providing postal services to Jekyll Island that might best be described as a version of Brown’s early hit “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.” The Postal Service "ain't too hip now" but it's got a new bag, too. It wants to end door delivery for the nearly nine hundred homes and businesses on Jekyll Island and instead have everyone go to the post office to pick up the mail. According to postal regulations, the Postal Service can't change a customer's mode of delivery without permission, but that's not how it's going down on Jekyll Island.
The island is owned by the state of Georgia, and it is administered by a state board called the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA). The residents of the island own their homes, but they lease the land on which their houses sit.
The island is served by a small branch of the main office in Brunswick, on the mainland, over twelve miles away and on the other side of a six-mile causeway. The office is currently open just four hours a day (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.). For many years the Jekyll Island post office was housed in a retail mall, but when that mall was torn down, retail services were moved to a trailer. The rent on the original facility was $10,500 per year, but the JAI didn’t charge the Postal Service any rent at all on the trailer.
The homes and businesses on Jekyll Island receive mail delivery from two city routes that originate in Brunswick. Mail is addressed to individual street addresses and bears a Jekyll Island zip code – 31527. Currently the carriers deliver to the door – a mode of delivery that has been around for as long as anyone on the island can remember.
The JIA has been constructing a new retail shopping center in the historic district at the south end of the island. It is a small area serviced by a few small roads, and according to residents, it's mainly frequented by tourists. After the new shopping center is completed, the temporary trailers that have been used since the old mall was taken down are going to be removed. The JIA has offered the Postal Service a place for a new post office in the new mall.
According to this article in the Florida Times-Union and other documents, at some point in the discussions between the USPS and the JIA, the scope of the negotiations expanded beyond the topic of the new post office. It appears that the Postal Service suggested — or at least implied — that it would close the Jekyll Island post office unless the residents agreed to give up home delivery. The Postal Service isn’t talking, and the attorney for JIA, Chris O’Donnell, has offered varying accounts, but that seems to be what happened.
According to Mr. O’Donnell, the JIA — fearing that the community might lose its post office — reached an agreement with the Postal Service to give up home delivery in exchange for a new post office in the tourist-oriented historic district. The Postal Service will pay a nominal $2,700 per year in rent.
The new facility is supposed to be sort of old-timey to fit in with the character of the historic district. It will have fancy brass boxes, a special postmark, and other “vintage” design features.
It isn’t clear who is going to pay for all of this. Mr. O’Donnell says he has the deal in writing, but he hasn’t offered it for inspection, and the JIA has not responded to my FOIA requesting documents related to the negotiations. Originally Mr. O’Donnell indicated that the deal included keeping delivery to the island’s businesses, but he has since backed off that assertion.
In several of his statements to the press, in the FAQ page describing the deal, and in an email responding to a resident’s questions, Mr. O’Donnell has sometimes sounded like he was reading a set of Postal Service talking points. He refers to legislation in Congress that would eliminate home delivery, but it’s not clear which legislation he’s referring to, and there's a big difference between proposed legislation that may never be enacted and the current statutes and regulations.
The Postal Service certainly hasn’t been shy about pressing for changes in modes of delivery across the country. In most cases, it would prefer cluster boxes to door or curb delivery because centralized delivery costs less. But according to current postal regulations, the Postal Service can’t change a customer’s mode of delivery without the customer’s permission.
The applicable regulation appears in the Postal Operations Manual (POM), section 631.6: “Customer signatures must be obtained prior to any conversion. In single-family housing areas (including manufactured housing and mobile homes) where the residences and lots are owned, each owner must agree to the conversion in writing. Owners who do not agree must be allowed to retain their current mode of delivery.”
Because Jekyll Island residents own their homes (even though they lease the land), it would seem that they should have the right to make decisions about how their mail is delivered. If they don’t want to consent to a change in mode of delivery, they should be able to continue with door delivery.
Mr. O’Donnell and JIA, however, are apparently claiming that they can supersede this postal regulation and speak for all of the island’s residents. According to Mr. O’Donnell, instead of home delivery, the Postal Service would offer Class E boxes for residents at the new postal facility. Class E boxes are free post office boxes for folks who don’t otherwise have or qualify for route delivery, and Jekyll Island customers would be eligible for free boxes if home delivery were discontinued.
There don’t seem to be any postal regulations that address a trade — a post office for home delivery — like that being contemplated on Jekyll Island. There also don’t seem to be any regulations that deal with a unique situation where customers own their houses but lease the land from a state authority. The JIA does appear to have the power to prohibit curbside boxes — and it has said it would do so — but the matter is one of door delivery versus post office boxes, so curbside doesn’t seem to be an issue.
Anyway, the argument being put forward by JIA goes something like this: Congress is talking about replacing door delivery with curbside and centralized delivery, and the Postal Service has been moving in this direction for new construction and businesses. Since home delivery will soon be a thing of the past all across the country, there’s no reason to fight for it in Jekyll Island, especially when there’s a possibility that the community could also lose its post office.
This line of reasoning assumes that Congress and the Postal Service will eventually agree to end home delivery, but this is far from certain, and the JIA is in no position to make this kind of fortune-telling prediction. It also assumes that the Postal Service would have closed the Jekyll Island post office, also far from certain since the next nearest post office is over 12 miles away on the mainland.
We thus have a situation where it appears that the Postal Service threatened to terminate a post office without going through a discontinuance procedure and without giving customers the right to appeal the closing to the Postal Regulatory Commission. At the same time, the JIA appears to have abrogated customers’ rights to approve or reject a change in the mode of delivery.
The case of Jekyll Island thus represents a new twist to an increasingly common story. The Postal Service is using its current fiscal crisis to subvert the regulatory procedures for closing post offices and for changing modes of delivery. The Postal Service once again displays that it has a bottomless bag of tricks for accomplishing its goals, some of which are not sanctioned by current statutes or regulations.
In this instance, the Postal Service is getting an assist from a state agency that seems badly out of touch with the needs and concerns of the people it serves. Some of the folks on Jekyll Island have indicated that if it came to a choice they would keep home delivery, even if it meant seeing the post office close. It is small and open only a few hours a day, and in the new location there will be little parking and lots of congestion.
Some of the news articles mention that keeping the zip code is of primary importance, but that really isn’t an issue. The Postal Service regularly allows communities to maintain their zip code when a local facility closes. In this instance the delivery originates in Brunswick, so there really wouldn’t be any change. It’s a moot point but apparently an effective threat.
Putting Jekyll Island customers in the position of choosing between home delivery and a post office was a false choice to begin with. Under current regulations, there is nothing that sanctions withdrawal of delivery. New legislation may change those regulations, but there’s no reason to make deals at this time presuming what that legislation will say.
While a new “vintage” post office in the historic district may have some appeal, there are good reasons for maintaining the post office in the trailer. Since it's open only four hours a day, and the labor costs must be very low. While many of the island’s residents do much of their shopping in Brunswick, the facility is convenient and serves a fairly large and vibrant tourist trade – certainly its products and services could be tailored appropriately.
The proposed postal facility in the historic district also has some justification. The rent is cheap enough — JIA is willing to accept just $2,700 a year — but that deal should not be contingent upon delivery. There's probably enough postal business in Jekyll Island to justify having both post offices — there was certainly no reason to threaten the community that they could end up with no post office at all.
We’re told in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “The thing that hath been done, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
Apparently the Old Testament folks never had to deal with postal managers. They always seem to have a brand new bag — and always more tricks for cutting postal services.