Moratorium Time

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Maybe it’s time for a moratorium on post office closures, consolidations, and suspensions.  The Postal Service seems to be closing post offices as fast as it can, and communities barely have time to react.  Many have had a post office for over a hundred years, yet they’re given just 60 days to respond to a closure notice.  With emergency suspensions, the study for discontuance takes place after the post office has closed, often with just 24 hours notice.  And when communities protest at public meetings, representatives of the Postal Service don’t seem to listen.  It’s as if the decision has already been made—and it probably has been.  An Advisory Opinion issued by the Postal Regulatory Commission in 2009 said, " the Commission finds that the Postal Service should improve customers' opportunity to offer input. . .  [P]ublic comments often are not sought until after the initial decision to close the facility has already been made."

In its rush to close post offices, the Postal Service is engaging in dubious practices, and the agency responsible for overseeing it, the Postal Regulatory Commission, is investigating accusations that the Postal Service is violating the law.  The Postal Service has shuttered many post offices as  “emergency suspensions” because the lease has terminated, but it often seems this “emergency” could easily have been avoided.  The PRC has filed a formal notice entitled "Investigation of Suspended Post Offices," which questions whether the Postal Service has been suspending post offices without making sufficient effort  to reopen or formally close them.  The chairman of the PRC has testified before Congress about problems with the way the Postal Service is closing post offices. The National Association of Postmasters (NAPUS) has filed a formal complaint with the PRC that the Postal Service is not following the law in its practices concerning closures and consolidations as well, and

We’ve heard plenty about how the Postal Service is running a huge deficit and how it has to close post offices to cut costs.  Some have said the Postal Service should be “blown up” and privatized.  But it is not supposed to matter that some community post offices operate at a financial deficit: those that run in the black are supposed to subsidize those that run in the red. That’s what makes the Postal Service different from a Starbucks or a Gap.  If they have a store that’s losing money, they close it.  But “universal service” means that everyone is supposed to have access to a community post office, without regard for whether it’s profitable or not.

We need a much more thoughtful national discussion about the meaning of universal service and the financial issues facing the Postal Service.  And while we’re having that conversation, the Postal Service should stop closing post offices.  It’s time for a moratorium on closings.  Don’t think it’s possible?

There’s nothing radical about moratoriums on closures.  There have been two moratoriums on post office closings since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970.

In 1975, a GAO report recommending the closure and consolidation of 12,000 rural post offices led to a "storm of reaction," Congressional hearings, and the passage of the Postal Reorganization Act Amendments.  The Act established a commission to study the postal service and imposed a moratorium on closing or consolidating any post office until the commission published its findings.  That moratorium was in effect from September 1976 until March 1977.

In 1998, under congressional pressure, the Postmaster General declared a moratorium on closures and consolidations, and it was in place until 2003.  As a recent report by the Office of Inspector General explains, the reason for this self-imposed moratorium was "suspicion in Congress that the Postal Service was manipulating the emergency suspension procedure," which was the subject of a 1999 congressional hearing. 

In Canada, there’s been a moratorium on closing rural post offices since 1994.  Like the U.S., Canada is facing similar pressures to privatize the postal system, and a 2009 advisory panel “recommended that the current moratorium on post office closures in rural and small towns be replaced with new rules and procedures, including the ability to replace public post offices with private outlets.”  But in the meantime, the moratorium is protecting 3800 public post offices in rural andsmall one-post-office towns.

It’s Congress that is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the postal system provide “universal service.”  When the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 transformed the postal system from a government service into a corporate-type independent agency, Congress wanted to ensure that the postal system continued to provide effective postal services to residents of both urban and rural communities. In 1996 Congress amended the Act and established specific requirements for closing a post office to ensure that the USPS consider the effects on the community as well as providing and involving communities in the decision, thus ensuring that closure decisions were made in a fair, consistent manner.  While the nation debates the future of the postal system, it only makes sense that the USPS put a moratorium, as it did back in 1998, on closing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of post offices.

(Photo credits: top to bottom: St Pete Beach Todaymlive.com; Cleveland.com; Oakland Press; WataugaDemocrat.com)

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