Yesterday the Postal Regulatory Commission put out a press release announcing that it has established the docket (N2012-2) for its Advisory Opinion on POStPlan, the Postal Service’s plan to cut hours at 13,000 post offices.
The Chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, encourages postal customers “to become familiar with the new proposal and to let the Commission know of their interests and needs.” POStPlan isn’t going to be challenged by the postmasters associations, NAPUS and the League of Postmasters, so it’s especially important for the public to make its views known to the Commission.
You can send your comments to the Postal Regulatory Commission, 901 New York Avenue NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC, 20268-0001. Mention the docket number, N2012-2. You can also submit comments online using the customer service form, here. If you want to suggest questions that might be put to the Postal Service about the plan, you could probably also contact the Public Representative assigned to the case, Emmett Rand Costich, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The process will be chaired not by Chairman Goldway, but by Vice Chairman Nanci Langley. No explanation on that, but perhaps Chairman Goldway has her hands full with the Advisory Opinion on Network Rationalization, which will be running concurrently, as well as the many other open dockets. Judging by the many dissenting opinions Langley wrote for appeals cases in which she challenged the Postal Service’s decision to close the post office, it looks like the chair responsibilities are in good hands with Commissioner Langley.
The procedural schedule, short but sweet
The PRC has also published its procedural schedule for the Advisory Opinion on POStPlan. Compared to the schedule for previous Advisory Opinions, this one is brief, and one wonders why.
The Postal Service’s Request for an Advisory Opinion was submitted on May 25, and the schedule will be completed by July 27, unless there’s rebuttal testimony. That’s nine weeks. The Opinion itself will probably be issued in August.
For the Network Rationalization case on the plant consolidations, the Request was filed on Dec. 5, 2011, and the schedule runs until July 20 for reply briefs — a total of 33 weeks.
For the Opinion on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), the plan to close 3,700 post offices, the Request was filed on July 27, 2011, and the schedule ran until November 10 — a total of 15 weeks.
The official explanation for the short schedule on POStPlan, as conveyed through PRC spokesperson Ann Fisher, is that the POStPlan Advisory Opinion builds upon the PRC’s previous work on the retail network. It has already studied the 2009 Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation (SBOC) initiative as well as the 2011 RAOI. The procedural schedule was also informed by a preliminary review of the Request for an Advisory Opinion, which was relatively brief and not accompanied by much else — just a few library references and the testimony of one witness, Jeffrey C. Day, who’s apparently in charge of the plan.
In other words, the short schedule is due partly to the fact that this is the PRC’s third Opinion on the retail network, so a lot of the groundwork has already been done. In some respects, one could even view POStPlan as the Postal Service’s response to the Commission’s Opinion on the RAOI. Not that the Postal Service necessarily sees it that way — it doesn’t even mention the RAOI in its Request for an Advisory Opinion or in witness Day’s testimony.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Postal Service never issued a formal reply to the PRC about its Opinion on the RAOI, which it did do on the Five-Day Delivery case. It never challenged any of the Commission’s findings, never publicly acknowledged the Opinion at all.
All intervenors welcome
One might think of POStPlan as the sequel to the RAOI, so the PRC is not starting from scratch, but there may be other reasons for the short schedule.
First off, it doesn’t look as if there will be much happening this time around. The postmasters’ organizations mounted the strongest attack on the RAOI, but they have agreed not to challenge POStPlan before the PRC.
For the RAOI, there were seventeen intervenors — the two postmasters associations, the APWU and NPMHU, the lessors’ association, Valpak, other industry groups, Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law, and postal watchdog David Popkin. So far, only Mr. Popkin has signed up for action on POStPlan. (He’s already posed some interesting interrogatories.)
There’s still time for others to join him, but with only a few intervenors and no NAPUS or League, there are not likely to be a lot of interrogatories and expert testimony or a need for hearings with cross-examinations, rebuttal witnesses, and all the rest.
The abbreviated schedule may also be a response to criticism from people like Senator Tom Carper, who feels that the PRC has been taking too long on its Opinions. In a March Senate hearing on the nomination of Tony Hammond to the PRC, Carper used most of his time questioning Hammond to criticize the PRC for being so slow. Hammond promised to speed things up.
The PRC, by the way, is in the process of revising its own procedures to make the Opinion process faster, but those new procedures won’t be in place in time to apply to POStPlan.
Another reason for the schedule may be that the Commission senses that POStPlan is practically a done deal. There may not even be much interest on the part of the Commissioners to find fault with the plan. Perhaps they welcome it as an alternative to closing thousands of post offices. We’ll have to wait and see on that.
Finally, it looks like the Postal Service is going to proceed with the plan regardless of what the PRC says. It said it would not begin implementation until September, but that all depends on what you mean by “implementation.”
The Postal Service is supposed to give the PRC ninety days to do its Opinion, and no post office will have its hours reduced before September. But in many respects, implementation has already begun. Postmasters have been given their VER incentive offer, and they have to make a decision whether or not to take it over the next few weeks. This month, the Postal Service will also begin upgrading 4,600 post offices to Level 18, most of them as Administrative Post Offices (APOs) — no waiting for the Advisory Opinion on that either, and no waiting to see whether there’s even a Remotely Managed Post Office (RPMO) in the vicinity for the APO to administer.
The Postal Service is proceeding with the change in First-Class service standards and consolidating plants well before the PRC finishes its opinion on Network Rationalization, probably in August or September. Now it’s beginning to implement POStPlan before the PRC even gets started on the new Advisory Opinion. It’s looking more and more like the Postal Service doesn’t care very much what the PRC’s Opinion is.
First an appeal, and now POStPlan
It doesn’t look like the Postal Service cares very much about how the PRC spends its time either. During the first few months of 2012 — a period during which the Postal Service was conferring with the postmasters associations about POStPlan and informing the Board of Governors of its new plan — attorneys for the Postal Service were continuing to oppose appeals on post offices closings at the PRC. Now it turns out those appeals were basically a waste of time.
Although we’re first hearing about POStPlan now, the origins of the plan go back to early 2011. In March 2011, the Postal Service filed a proposal to change the Code of Federal Regulations that laid the groundwork for POStPlan (there’s a timeline here). The Postal Service put together a PPT presentation dated April 21, 2011, that indicates they were already thinking about having one postmaster manage more than one post office and redefining “consolidation” to make it easier to downgrade a post office without going through a Title 39 discontinuance process. The Postal Service told the postmasters associations about the plan sometime in December or January, and the BOG was informed in February.
Let’s say the plan wasn’t given the green light until December. Between January and May of 2012, the PRC ruled on some 133 appeals. If the Postal Service knew it was going to keep these post offices open at reduced hours, what was the point of fighting the appeals?
All in all, the PRC ruled on 220 appeals between January 1, 2011, and May 2012. When the Postal Service made up its POStPlan list, it doesn’t seem to have mattered what the outcomes of those appeals were.
The PRC affirmed the Postal Service’s Final Determinations in 172 of those 220 cases. All but 21 of these post offices will be downgraded to partial hours (83 will be level 2, 65 will be level 4, and three will be level 6). These post offices seemed certain to close when the moratorium ended in May, and the fact that they will now stay open, even at reduced hours, is about the only bright spot in the entire POStPlan.
The PRC remanded the Final Determination in only 16 of the 220 cases. Winning an appeal has seemed next to impossible, and those communities had good reason to celebrate. Although a remand means only that the Postal Service must reconsider the Final Determination, remands have rarely been revisited, and it looked like those 16 post offices were safe. Now 13 of them will be downgraded — seven to 4 hours, and six to just 2 hours. All the hard work of the appeal process now seems in vain, and you can be sure the folks in those towns are not happy.
The Postal Service withdrew its Final Determination on 23 post offices. Those communities also thought they were home free. Now 18 of these offices are set for reduced hours.
Overall, out of those 220 appeals, 184 post offices will be staying open with reduced hours. The Postal Service could easily have withdrawn the Final Determinations on all of them and simply told the PRC that it was working on another approach that would make the outcome of the appeals irrelevant.
Each one of these appeals case required a lot of time and effort on the part of many people — the citizens, attorneys, and elected officials who filed the appeal, the PRC and USPS attorneys responsible for arguing the cases, the support staff at both agencies, and the Commissioners themselves. The Administrative Record for each case is extensive, particularly if one cares to read through page after page of public comments, and it takes a lot of time to prepare and analyze all the materials that make up an appeals docket.
It’s anyone’s guess how much an appeal costs. The communities that file an appeal often spend thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees, to say nothing of all the time they put it into letter writing campaigns, petitions, meetings, and all the rest. The elected officials of these communities also devote a lot of their time — and citizen tax dollars for their salaries — to the process. The PRC and Postal Service employ many attorneys, and their time is money too. The USPS attorney whose name always appears on motions and briefs for appeals is Anthony F. Alverno, Chief Counsel, Global Business & Service Development. His base pay is $152,546.
Just pulling a few numbers out of thin air, say an appeal takes 40 hours of legal time for the petitioner, PRC, and USPS. Attorney fees vary considerably, but figure $200 an hour, minimum. That’s $8,000 right there. Then there’s the time the Commissioners spend on each case, plus all the additional administrative and secretarial work. Let’s say an appeal costs $10,000. It could be twice that when you consider all the time appellants put it into.
For 220 appeals, that’s over two million dollars. And for what? So the Postal Service can say, “Thank you very much, we’ve decided not to close your post office after all, we’re just cutting its hours in half. Sorry to have troubled you.”
You can see a complete list and map of the 220 appeals here. The table can be sorted and aggregated with reference to the outcome of the appeal and whether or not the post office is part of POStPlan. For a map, click on the Visualize tab.
(Photo credits: Post offices that won a remand, now facing reduced hours: Balm FL, Etna NY, Jonesville TX, Watson AL, Lodi TX)