The post office in Freistatt, Missouri, closed today — on two days’ notice to customers. The Postal Service says it was unable to negotiate a lease renewal with the landlord, so it declared an emergency suspension.
As usual in these cases, the landlord says he was more than willing to reduce the rent and make other accommodations, but his efforts, along with those of the Village Board, were to no avail. The Postal Service just wasn’t interested.
The USPS facilities list for Missouri says the rent is $3,900 a year, so the disagreement could not have been over a very large sum of money. But when you’re looking at a $40 billion deficit, every penny counts. And that’s probably how the Freistatt post office ended up closing — over a matter of pennies.
The Freistatt City Clerk told the local news station KY3, "From what I have gathered from talking with the building owner, that lease agreement is not unreasonable. But it looks to me like they're using that as an excuse to close a post office."
The Postal Service wanted to close the post office in Freistatt back in 2011. It was on the list of 3,700 post offices being reviewed for closure under the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI). When the Postal Service held the obligatory public meeting in August of 2011, Mayor Mike Ortwein said, “"I don't see how they are going to save that much money. They only have two employees and no carriers. The one full-time employee will be moved and the other is part-time."
Thanks to the nationwide protest against post office closings, the RAOI never got implemented. Then a moratorium on closings went into effect from December 2011 to May 2012, so the Freistatt post office remained open. Then it found itself on the POStPlan list, set to have the hours reduced to four a day. Apparently that won’t be happening now.
There’s been a post office in Freistatt since August 14, 1884. The post office has been in this building since 1980. The Postal service has known for years that the lease ended on April 1, 2013. It’s hard to understand how lease negotiations could have ended in a last-minute “emergency” situation that has terminated a town's post office after 129 years of service.
Yet somehow the lease problem became public only a couple of weeks ago. According to the Monett Times, “Contradictory exchanges over the status of the post office surfaced in mid-March.” After the Postal Service let the town know that there was an issue with the lease, the Village Board held a special meeting on March 21.
The landlord said that he had encountered no problems in discussions about the lease, and once he learned from the town that there was a potential issue, he made several counter offers, including a cut in the rental rate.
Rick Belcher, manager for post officer operations for the Mid-America District, told the Village Board that one alternative to having a post office was placing cluster boxes on city property. The Board was concerned about liability issues — the town has a lot of seniors — and it said it would need to talk things over with the community.
On Wednesday, March 27, less than a week later, postal customers were officially notified that the post office was closing in two days. And that’s exactly what happened. On Good Friday afternoon, crews from the United States Postal Service emptied out the Freistatt Post Office and closed it permanently. They even sawed off the flag pole.
There’s no home delivery of mail in Freistatt. Everyone has general delivery and goes to the post office to pick up the mail. Now they’ll have to drive eight miles to Monett. Seniors who don't drive are just out of luck.
The Postal Service says rural delivery is not "economically feasible," so it's looking into installing a cluster box unit somewhere in town. There's no chance that the post office will open at another location.
De facto closings
In the Postal Regulatory Commission’s Annual Compliance Determination review (ACD), published just yesterday, there’s a discussion of emergency suspensions. (The Postal Service also shared a list, here.) The report says that there are currently 211 post offices under suspension, 92 of them as a result of “lease expirations,” i.e., a failure to negotiate a renewal.
Most of these post offices will never reopen. Just 21 of the 146 offices suspended in 2012 have reopened so far, and those were mostly due to temporary issues like bad weather, not leases.
One of the big problems with emergency suspensions is that they become, as the Commission’s report puts it, “de facto closings.” There are 87 post offices under suspension from before October 2011, some of them from as far back as the 1980s and early 1990s. In these cases, the Postal Service has never bothered following up with a formal discontinuance study or reopening the office, as the law requires.
The main focus of the PRC’s compliance report is postal rates and whether or not the Postal Service is in compliance with the law on rate matters. The Commission doesn’t make a point of saying that the Postal Service is out of compliance on the suspension issue.
But you don’t need to read between the lines to see that the Postal Service is failing to follow the law by using the emergency suspension provision to do de facto closures. The problem is that no one is doing anything about it.
(Photo credit: Google street view)