Topeka Post Office becomes first to close after losing its carriers to S&DC

Steve HutkinsBlog, Featured

Yesterday was the last day of operations for the post office at the Sherwood Carrier Annex in Topeka, Kansas. It now has the dubious distinction of being the first post office to close after losing its carriers to a Sorting & Delivery Center.

Or perhaps not. The Postal Service says the Sherwood post office isn’t really a post office.

On June 3, the Postal Service relocated 31 carrier routes and more than 40 carriers from the Sherwood Annex to the new S&DC at the Topeka P&DC, along with carriers from four other post offices.

Left behind in the facility was a post office that provided services for undeliverable mail and packages being held for pickup. The office did not provide retail services or PO boxes, but many customers depended on it. Those 31 routes delivered to over 20,000 addresses and 33,000 people — one out of four people in the city of Topeka. It’s the only post office in ZIP Code 66614. (Sherwood is the name of the community surrounding Lake Sherwood in southwest Topeka.)

Topeka 66614 (Go to interactive map)

The Postal Service has repeatedly claimed that no post office would be closed after its carriers were relocated to an S&DC. In a recent filing for the PRC’s Public Inquiry on Delivering for America, the Postal Service told the Commission that the transformation of the network would only impact delivery operations, not post office services.

The Postal Service said specifically that “customers will not be required to make a trip to the S&DC (which may be more distant from their house than their current Delivery Unit) to pick up their hold mail; rather, under this initiative, hold mail will be transported to and made available for retrieval at the customer’s local Post Office.”

Notice at the Sherwood Carrier Annex. Click to enlarge.

That won’t be true for customers of the Sherwood post office.

On July 17, a notice was posted at the Sherwood facility saying, “Effective Saturday, August 26, 2023 — All Mail Picked Up at the following Post Office will be relocated: Sherwood Carrier Annex.”

The new pickup location is the Gage Center Post Office, about 4 miles away  — a ten-minute drive, but almost impossible by public transportation.

The Gage office was one of the five post offices that gave up their carriers to the Topeka S&DC in June. It remains open, but its long-term future is in doubt now that there’s just a retail operation.

When WIBW 13 NEWS contacted the Postal Service about the notice, the Postal Service responded that the closure is part of the Delivering for America plan, which includes the creation of sorting and delivery centers. But the Postal Service also said, like always, that customers will not see changes to local post office retail operations or PO Box service and that no post offices will close as a result of the S&DC plan.

Given the contradiction in the Postal Service’s explanation, 13 NEWS asked for clarification regarding whether the Sherwood Carrier Annex closure would be temporary or permanent, but the USPS Strategic Communications Specialist did not respond.

On August 18, the President of the APWU Local 270 filed an appeal on the closing with the Postal Regulatory Commission on behalf of the Sherwood post office community, along with a petition with 195 signatures from customers. The appeal says that the Postal Service did not follow the procedure required by law for closing a post office, like holding a public meeting and comment period, and the Gage office already has lines out the door, so adding more new customers will make things worse. (The petition, an email chain exchange with the Topeka, KS postmaster, and a grievance filed by the APWU have been filed under seal.)

On August 25, the Postal Service filed a motion to dismiss the appeal. The Postal Service makes two arguments: first, the Sherwood Carrier Annex is not a post office so a discontinuance procedure was not required, and second, the person who filed the appeal does not have standing because the APWU local president is not a person served by the Annex.

The Postal Service says, “the Annex is not a Post Office within the scope of section 404(d)(5), but rather a postal sorting and delivery facility.” According to the Postal Service, a post office can only be a post office if it offers retail services.

To help make this point, the Postal Service notes that the Annex was staffed entirely by back-office personnel. But there were apparently several customer-service employees who provided public-facing services, like locating and handing over held packages.

And there is nothing in 404(d)(5) that limits the definition of “post office” to facilities with retail operations. The statute simply refers to “the closing or consolidation of any post office,” and it goes on to say that “A determination of the Postal Service to close or consolidate any post office may be appealed by any person served by such office.” The term “retail” does not appear anywhere in the statute.

In any case, the Postal Service has always considered the post office at the Annex to be a Post Office, as indicated by the following:

  • The closure notice posted at the facility on July 17 refers to the Annex as a “post office.”
  • On the USPS Locator website, the Sherwood Carrier Annex is identified as a Post Office™. The Locator page also includes the collection hours.

Source: USPS Location Finder (Archived here.)

  • On a notification letter the Postal Service sent to stakeholders in August 2022 about the next post offices to give their carriers to S&DCs, the Sherwood office is identified as “Top-Sherwood Sta,” i.e., a post office station in Topeka, just as the Gage Center office is identified as “Top-Gage Center Sta.”
  • On the PostalPro list of postal facilities, the Facility Type for the Sherwood Annex is “Post Office” — just as it is for all 520 carrier annexes — while processing facilities are identified as “Mail Process.”
  • In the PRC’s annual compliance report, Table V-11 provides a summary of the number of retail facilities. It says there were 26,269 Post Offices and 4,865 Classified Stations & Branches and Carrier Annexes. The report says, “A carrier annex is a facility that in general provides only carrier operations and not retail services,” but apparently they are considered post offices in the counting.
  • The Compliance report also has a table summarizing “Post Office Suspension Activity during FY 2022.” It too lists Post Offices, Stations and Branches, and Carrier Annexes. If it were possible to close a carrier annex without going through a discontinuance procedure, there would be no reason to go through the suspension process.

Perhaps these two tables include only those post offices at carrier annexes that provide retail services — many do — and not those, like Sherwood, that do not, but this is by no means clear in the PRC report, and it’s doubtful. The Postal Service includes annexes as post offices in its reports to the Commission.

The post office at the Sherwood Carrier Annex has always been identified as a Post Office. But now, according to the Postal Service, it is not a post office covered by the discontinuance statute, so no public hearing or comment period was required and the closing can’t be appealed.

For many years now, the Postal Service has made the same argument about stations and branches (the post offices subordinate to a city’s main post office), but the Commission has rejected this position, and it always hears appeals on stations and branches.

On the other hand, the Commission has generally acceded to the Postal Service’s argument that contract post offices aren’t covered by section 404 unless they’re the “sole source” of postal services in a community, and it typically rejects those appeals.

There’s currently an appeal before the Commission on the Community Post Office in the historic hamlet of Westbrookville, New York. The Postal Service has filed a motion to dismiss because it’s a contract office, and the Commission will soon affirm the motion and not hear the appeal.

In a footnote to the motion to dismiss the Sherwood appeal, the Postal Service argues that, if the Commission were to find that the post office is a post office, the appeal should be dismissed on other grounds. Services provided at the Annex “have simply been relocated within the community.”

Numerous appeals have been dismissed for this reason — notably the relocation of services at the historic Venice, California, post office to a carrier annex across the street — but that’s a stretch in the Sherwood case, which is probably why this argument was relegated to a footnote in the motion. Relocation means moving retail service from one building to another, not consolidating them to a currently operating post office. If that were the case, every post office closing could be a “relocation,” since services are always provided somewhere else. That would make the discontinuance statute irrelevant.

It will be interesting to see how the Commission rules on the annex issue. There don’t appear to be any precedent appeals to rely on, but the ruling on Sherwood could itself become a precedent.

On the most recent list of S&DC consolidations, there are five other annexes that provide non-retail services, and there will be many more down the road. Will the Commission decide not to hear appeals on their closings?

As for the matter of standing, the Postal Service argues that the president of the union local does not claim to be served by the Annex. “Petitioner does not allege a close relationship to the community of users served by the Annex, nor does she allege that members of that community cannot bring their own appeal.”

If standing becomes an issue for the Commission, it would not be difficult for someone served by the Annex to re-file the appeal. The PRC order establishing the docket on the appeal states that the Petitioner may amplify her initial appeal with additional comments, and other persons may file comments as well, all due by September 18. Perhaps additional comments from customers served by the post office would make the standing issue moot.

Yesterday may have been the last day of operations for the Sherwood Carrier Annex Post Office. The Commission could rule on the motion to dismiss within a couple of weeks, but it might take a couple of months (the deadline for a decision on the appeal is December 18). The Postal Service may hold off on the closure while the appeal is pending, but that’s doubtful.

The Postal Service has owned the Sherwood Carrier Annex property since 1994. Now that the carriers are all gone and the post office is probably closing, the Postal Service will soon put the building up for sale.

The Sherwood post office may then earn another dubious distinction by becoming the first post office to be sold after its carriers were relocated to an S&DC. It won’t be the last.

— Steve Hutkins