The USPS and PRC ponder the meaning of “post office”: The appeal on the Careywood Idaho CPO

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In December 2011, the Postal Service declared a five-month moratorium on post office closings, and by the time it was over, the plans to close thousands of post offices had been abandoned.  The Postal Regulatory Commission had already dealt with over 200 appeals during the previous two years, and it was expecting an avalanche.  Instead, there was just a handful of new appeals over the coming months, and the Commission resumed its work on the usual matters, like rates and classifications.

As this point it’s been seventeen months since anyone appealed a post office closure to the PRC.  But two appeals were filed recently, and they are both interesting and important cases.

Earlier this month, the mayor of Norwich, Connecticut, filed an appeal concerning the Yantic post office, which was suspended suddenly in February 2012 for safety and security issues associated with the condition of the building.  There’s more about this appeal here.

On the other side of the country, the Postal Service is planning to close a community post office in Careywood, Idaho, a small town northeast of Spokane, near the Coeur D’Alene National Forest.  The closing date is March 31.  On Friday, March 27, the Postal Service began preparing by packing up equipment in the post office and moving out the p.o. boxes.

On March 19, Marrion Banks and a couple of other people in Careywood filed an appeal with the PRC.  The petitioners argue that the Postal Service did not go through the discontinuance procedure required by law.  There were no surveys to elicit comments from customers, no public meeting, no 60-day comment period, and so on.

Banks also filed an “application for suspension” asking the Commission to order the Postal Service to keep the post office open while the appeal is heard.  On Friday, the day the Postal Service was packing up, she filed an Emergency Request for Injunctive Relief in which she provides further arguments for why the post office should be kept open during the appeals process.

The letters from the folks in Careywood explain that the post office is its hub and center, “the heart of the community.”  They point to how much it will cost in time and money for everyone to drive further to another post office, how highway traffic will increase, how people depend on the security of their post office boxes for receiving medications, how much local businesses spend on postage, and so on.

The community has also done a petition drive and gathered almost 500 signatures.  The petition has been submitted to the PRC by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, along with his letter urging the PRC to fully consider the appeal.

That may not happen.  On Friday, March 27, the Postal Service filed a Motion to Dismiss in which it argues that the Careywood post office is a contract postal unit, so it has no obligation to do a discontinuance procedure and the Commission has no authority to hear the appeal.  The Postal Service is also fighting the effort to keep the post office open so that it can proceed with the closing on March 31.

There’s good reason to be concerned that the Commission will indeed dismiss the Careywood appeal.  In order to do so, however, it would need to repudiate its own precedents, which date back to 1983 and which were affirmed numerous times during the 1980s and 1990s.

There are currently about 3,100 contract post offices.  (A list is here.)  According to the Postal Service, any of these facilities can be closed without following the laws governing post office closings and with no opportunity for appeal.

Careywood is a small place in Idaho, but the Commission’s decision on the Careywood appeal could have huge implications.

 

The Motion to Dismiss

The Careywood post office is what’s called a Community Post Office (CPO), which is a type of contract postal unit (CPU).   According to the USPS Guide to Contract Postal Units, a CPO  “provides postal services in small communities where an independent Post Office has been discontinued.  A CPO usually bears its community’s name and ZIP Code.”   The Careywood facility is thus the Careywood ID CPO, ZIP 83809.

As this USPS page explains, back in the early days, these contract units were also called “stations” and “branches.”  That’s why the sign on the Careywood CPO says “US Post Office Station.”

A CPO offers most USPS products and services, and the average person would probably not be able to tell the difference from a regular post office.  But CPOs and CPUs are operated by a private individual under contract with the Postal Service rather than by USPS employees.

The Postal Service has taken the position that these contract units fall outside the scope of the federal statutes governing post office closings and that appeals are outside the PRC’s jurisdiction.  For decades, the PRC has taken the opposite view.  The difference of opinions has never been resolved.

The Postal Service’s Motion to Dismiss and response to the application for suspension of the closure make the following arguments:

1. The appeal is outside the scope of the Commission’s jurisdiction under the discontinuance statute — 39 U.S.C. § 404(d) — because Careywood is a contract unit, not a “post office.”  The Postal Service says 404(d) applies only to USPS-operated facilities, so it was not necessary to follow any of the discontinuance procedures to shut down the Careywood CPO, and the closing cannot be appealed to the PRC.

2. In the past, the Commission has interpreted “post office” more broadly and argued that contract units should fall within 404(d) when the community Post Office is the “only retail postal facility serving the community.”   The main precedent is Knob Fork, West Virginia, a 1983 case in which the PRC ruled that a community post office did fall within 404(d) — the statute was 404(b) at the time — and the closing decision could be appealed to the PRC if the post office was the “sole source” of postal services in the community.

In the case of Careywood, the Postal Service argues that the case does not meet the “sole source” standard because there’s a post office in Athol, “within a seven minute drive” from the Careywood CPO.  In developing this argument, the Postal Service cites a concurring opinion by Commissioner Robert Taub (now the PRC’s Acting Chairman) on the case of Alplaus, New York, which also involved a CPO.  The Commission dismissed that case because Alplaus did not satisfy the “sole source” criterion — there were many other places to do postal business in the community — but Taub added an opinion in which he expressed his “misgivings” about the “continued viability of the Knob Fork decision” in the post-PAEA era, when there are so many new forms of access for customers.

3. The Postal Service also argues that procedures imposed by 404(d) “are not compatible with the requirements of contract management, negotiation, and implementation.”  By injecting itself into the process, the Commission could “force the Postal Service to continue operating a contract even where sound business judgment supports termination.”

4. Finally, the Postal Service argues that it has already made arrangements to close the post office, so it is “not practicable” at this late stage to keep the office open, as requested by the petitioner in the application for suspension.  This “would significantly frustrate postal operational plans.”

As we’ll discuss below, these arguments not persuasive, but before explaining why, a little background is in order.

 

The heart of Careywood

According to the USPS website, an independent post office, operated by the Post Office Department, was established in Careywood, Idaho, in 1904.  The post office moved to its current location in 1933.

At some point, the post office was discontinued as a USPS-operated facility and converted into a community post office.  The Postmaster Finder page on the USPS website says the Careywood post office was discontinued on October 20, 1967.  The Postal Service’s Motion to Dismiss says the Careywood post office became the Careywood CPO on June 1, 1974.  It’s not clear which date is correct.

According to a story in the Bonner County Daily Bee, a woman named Sharon Hoffman became the contract postmaster for Careywood, and she ran the post office for four decades.  She and her husband Ron also owned the post office building, which helped keep costs down. A few years ago, Sharon became ill, and Ron took over responsibilities as postmaster.  After Sharon died in May of 2014, Ron wanted to retire, so he began looking for someone to take over.

In August 2014, Carrie Bartelt became the contract postmaster for the Careywood post office.  Ron taught her how to run the post office, and she quickly went to work fixing up the building, which she was renting from Ron, and making other improvements.

Bartelt had a hard time getting paid by the Postal Service, and it wasn’t until October that she got a check and the promise of a six-month contract.  Still, sales were up 40 percent, the post office was making a profit, and everything seemed to be going well.

The Motion to Dismiss doesn’t mention any of this.  It simply says that the Postal Service awarded an emergency fixed-term contract to Bartelt in September, and then on February 23, it notified her that the emergency contract would not be renewed and the contract would expire on March 31, 2015.

Customers were informed on February 20 that the post office would close, but they were not informed that they could appeal to the PRC because the Postal Service does not believe they have that right.  Nonetheless, somehow a few people in Careywood figured out that they could file an appeal with the PRC.  (This KREM2 news video has more about the appeal.)

In explaining why the contract would not be renewed, the Postal Service provided two reasons.  One was the cost of the contract that Bartelt was asking for, and the second involved plans the state of Idaho has to widen U.S. Highway 95, which would involve razing the building.

Careywood residents say the highway plans are way off in the future due to a shortage of state highway funding.  Jerry Wilson, project development engineer with the Idaho Department of Transportation, wrote in an email that no projects have been approved for the next five years, and that he estimates it would be 10 years or more before the state widens U.S. 95 through Careywood.

Bartelt told the local news media that she was never given a chance to renegotiate the contract.  One Careywood patron added this: “The timing on this whole thing is just mean.  Rather than letting her [Bartelt] know back last summer before she invested her time and her life and her hopes and future into setting up this post office, they let her do all of that and now send a letter with no forewarning saying it’s curtains.”

 

The Knob Fork precedent

In the Knob Fork, West Virginia case (PRC Docket No. A83-30), the Postal Service wanted to close a community post office that operated in conjunction with a small store in a rural town in Wetzel County, West Virginia.

There had been a post office in Knob Fork as early as 1854 (the place was named Knob Fork in 1855).  According to an old issue of Postmasters Advocate, in 1975 the post office was consolidated with another one nearby and replaced with a community post office.

Then in 1983, the Postal Service wanted to close the CPO, and an appeal was submitted to the PRC.  The Postal Service responded with a motion to dismiss the appeal, arguing, as it has in Careywood, that the Knob Fork CPO was not a “post office” because it was not an independent post office run by a postmaster employed by the USPS.  (For the same reason, the Postal Service has long argued that stations and branches are not “post offices” either.)

At issue was the difference between the technical meaning of “post office” and the common meaning.  “In ordinary usage,” observed the Commission in its final ruling on Knob Fork, “a ‘post office’ is a retail facility where patrons may purchase postal services, and dispatch and possibly receive mail. “

On the other hand, explained the Commission, “the technical or specialized usage” — the definition advocated by the Postal Service — “adds to the ordinary definition the requirement of a specific degree of managerial independence.”

The Commission looked to the legislative history for guidance on the question of which definition Congress had in mind when it passed 404(b) — the provision on post office closings and appeals, which later became 404(d).  The history did not provide a definitive answer to the question of what “post office” means, but legislators did make comments that shed light on the issue.

Several legislators, including Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, had expressed concerns about protecting small rural post offices. The Commission concluded that “it is not reasonable, given these concerns, to believe that the availability of the comment procedure [required for a post office closing] should turn on whether the only postal facility in the community is operated by a postal employee or a private contractor.”

The Commission also noted that when the Postal Service wanted to convert a “post office” to a CPO, it always emphasized to the community — as it did to the Commission in fighting the appeal — that in the public’s perception, the two types of facilities function in exactly the same manner and the same services will be provided.  If that’s the case, asked the Commission, why should closing them not follow the same procedures?

As the Commission put it in its ruling on Knob Fork:

If we accept the Postal Service’s consistent position that a community post office serves the public in much the same way as an independent post office, the more reasonable reading of section 404(b) is that it is to apply whenever the Postal Service proposes to close or consolidate a community’s retail postal facility. The public generally describes these facilities as “post offices.” Congress was concerned about the effects on the community resulting from the Postal service’s decisions on retail facilities.

The Postal Service also brought up the fact that contractors may terminate the facilities on notice, which is beyond the Postal Service’s control.  The Commission was not convinced by this argument either because the Postal Service could simply find another contractor.  In any case, concluded the Commission, that issue had no bearing on the meaning of “post office” under 404(b).

Having reviewed and disputed the Postal Service’s arguments, the Commission proceeded to set aside the determination to close Knob Fork, and a key precedent had been set.

 

The progeny of Knob Fork

After the Knob Fork decision, there were several PRC orders in the 1980s and 1990s that cited the case and further explored the issues.  In these cases, the appeals did not come from communities where the Postal Service wanted to close a CPO as in Knob Fork.  Instead, they all involved places where the Postal Service wanted to close an independent post office, consolidate it with a post office in another town, and replace the closed office with a CPO.

Converting independent post offices into CPOs was a fairly common practice at the time.  In fact, of the 150 or so appeals filed from 1978 to 1995, about half involved consolidations and conversions to CPOs.  (A list is here.)  There were probably many more conversions that never got appealed.

A search of the PRC’s archive indicates that there were at least ten cases that cited Knob Fork as a precedent (the links go to the PRC’s final orders):

One other case is worth noting: North Egremont, Massachusetts (No. A89-1).  This case was dismissed on November 17, 1988, as moot following a new contract agreement between the Postal Service and the CPO contractor.  (There’s no file for this case in the PRC archive, but it’s referenced in comments filed by the Postal Service on East Elko, NV.)  (Correction: The final order on North Egremont is here.)

 

The scope of 404(b)

In each of these appeals, one of the objections raised by the petitioners was that if their independent post office were converted into a CPO, the Postal Service could terminate the contract at any time and leave them without a post office at all.  The Knob Fork decision came up over and over again, and the Commission repeatedly affirmed its view that CPOs were in fact covered by 404(b).

In some cases, the PRC remanded the decision to convert the post office into a CPO for precisely this reason, usually along with other concerns as well.  In other cases, the Postal Service’s decision to convert the post office into a CPO was affirmed, but the Commission took the opportunity to note that if the Postal Service ever decided to close the CPO, the decision could be appealed to the PRC.  In a few cases, the closing decision was affirmed, but one or two commissioners issued dissenting opinions because of the 404(b) issue.

In each of these orders, the Commission reaffirmed its view of what “post office” meant and expressed its concerns about CPOs.  Each decision cited the previous cases, so one precedent built on another.  A brief look at some of these cases shows just how clear the Commission was about its position on the matter.

In Reed, OK, the Commission affirmed the decision to close the CPO, but Commissioner Simeon M. Bright added a concurring opinion in which he stated the following:

Section 404(b) of the Act requires the Postal Service, and, on review, the PRC, to consider the effect on community along with several other criteria in the closing of any post office.  The facility in question — an independent post office, a CPO, or a station or branch — must not hinder the affected community’s citizens the opportunity to bring a complaint before this Commission.

In Cataract, WI, the PRC looked ahead to the possibility that the Postal Service might one day decide to close the CPO:

The Commission has held that the same 39 U.S.C. § 404(b) procedures that apply before the Postal Service decides to close an independent post office such as the Cataract office will apply when the Postal Service proposes to close a community post office that is the only retail postal facility serving the community.

In, Waka and Inavale, the Commission affirmed the decision to consolidate the post office and create a CPO, but two commissioners issued a dissenting opinion in which they addressed the same concern.  Here’s what they wrote in Inavale:

A second, far more important concern expressed by some residents is that they have no assurances that in the future the Postal Service will not close the contract office. The Commission agrees with this concern, and views it as the fundamental issue in this case. The Commission’s long-standing interpretation of the law is that patrons have the right to appeal through the U.S. Postal Rate Commission the closing of a contract office.  We are not talking about when a contract might be terminated because of a problem with the contractor, but rather when a contract for a community post office is terminated with no intention to find another contractor. Indeed, legislation was introduced in the 102nd Congress to clarify that portion of the law by requiring the Rate Commission to also consider appeals from the closing of contract offices.

In Benedict, MN, the Commission went a step further and remanded the case back to the Postal Service.  Among the reasons cited was the possibility that the CPO might be closed in the future:

The closure of CPOs and residents’ interests and rights when a CPO is closed have been an area of concern at the Rate Commission since the Knob Fork, WV appeal in 1983 (PRC Op. A83- 30). The Rate Commission believes that the appeal rights provided by section 404(b) of the Reorganization Act extend to closures of community post offices. Where residents express concern about the future of the proposed CPO, the Rate Commission feels that residents should be informed that they could appeal a CPO closure to the Commission, just as they may appeal the closure of independent post offices….

Application of section 404(b) to a CPO does not mean the Postal Service could never close a CPO. It simply means that affected residents would be given notice and an opportunity to present their views prior to a final decision. The Postal Service’s Legal Memorandum filed in this case indicates the Service would not solicit citizen comments, nor evaluate the 404(b) factors, when deciding whether to maintain CPO service at Benedict, MN. The Commission finds this ignores the clear purpose of the 404(b) legislation.

In reviewing these final orders, it is crystal clear that the Commission was well aware of all of the Postal Service’s arguments — the same arguments it has presented in Careywood — and in each case, the Commission affirmed that a community post office was a “post office” under 404(d).

 

The sole source standard and Alplaus

Not much seems to have happened in the world of PRC appeals involving CPOs after these decisions in the 1980s and 1990s.  Perhaps the Postal Service stopped converting so many independent post offices into CPOs, or perhaps communities stopped appealing the conversions.

Then, in March 2012, the folks in Alplaus, New York, appealed the closure of their CPO, hoping that the Knob Fork case would lead the Commission to hear the appeal

In Alplaus, Commission ended up dismissing the appeal.  The Commission determined that in this particular case the question was not whether or not 404(d) applied to CPOs.  The issue, rather, was whether or not the Alplaus CPO was the “sole source” of postal services in the community — a key consideration in the Knob Fork decision that was repeatedly mentioned in the subsequent cases.

Alplaus is in a populated area near Schenectady, New York, and there were many other places to do postal business.  There was another post office just one mile away, as well as several  “alternative access options” like CVS, Walmart, Shoprite, and banks where one can buy stamps.

The Commission’s ruling states that because the Alplaus CPO could not be considered the sole source of postal services for its residents, “the Commission’s rationale for accepting the appeal of the closing of the Knob Fork CPO does not apply in the case of the Alplaus CPO.”

As a result, the Commission determined that there is “no need to revisit the Postal Service’s more general arguments concerning the definition of ‘post office’ or the scope of the Commission’s responsibilities under section 404(d).”

In other words, the Commission chose not to renew the arguments over CPOs and made a decision to dismiss the appeal based on the “sole source” standard.

(There’s a great post on Alplaus, by the way, on Going Postal here.)

 

Taub’s Concurring Opinion

As noted above, Commissioner Robert Taub took the opportunity of the Alplaus case to express his own views about Knob Fork.  Taub wrote that he had “misgivings concerning the continued viability of the Knob Fork decision in the post-Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) environment.”

Observing that things have changed considerably since the Knob Fork decision in 1983 because consumers now have a broader range of choices, Taub suggested that “the viability of the Knob Fork decision needs to be reexamined.”

Taub pointed out that in the post-PAEA era alternate access options have grown significantly.  In addition to traditional post offices, there are contract postal units, rural and highway carriers, village post offices, automated postal centers, approved shippers, the Internet, and retail establishments that sell stamps on consignment.

Commissioner Taub concluded his opinion as follows: “Given the pace and breadth of changes underway, I anticipate the Commission will have further opportunities for such a reexamination of Knob Fork to address more thoroughly the bases for, and viability of, that decision.”

That was three years ago.  Now, with Careywood, the Commission has finally been given an opportunity to reexamine Knob Fork.  It seems clear which way Acting Chairman Taub is leaning.  It remains to be seen what the other Commissioners will have to say.

 

Why the Motion to Dismiss should be rejected

Now, to return to the Postal Service’s arguments for why the Careywood appeal should be dismissed.  As noted above, the Postal Service has offered four arguments.  They are all without merit.  Let’s take them one by one.

 

1. 39 U.S.C. §404(d) Does Not Apply to Contract Postal Unit.

In all of its rulings on Knob Fork and its progeny, the Commission was very clear that the Postal Service’s technical definition of “post office” was not relevant to the issue of whether or not CPOs were covered by 404(d).  Nothing has happened in the intervening years to change the circumstances about what “post office” means.

To make its case, though, the Postal Service points to its discontinuance handbook, USPS Handbook PO-101, which states that a discontinuance occurs only from action directed toward a “Postal Service-operated retail facility.”

The Motion to Dismiss says that “the regulations are explicit in distinguishing between Postal Service-operated retail facilities and CPUs, and they eliminate any confusion regarding whether a contractor-operated retail facility, including a community Post Office, is subject to section 404(d).”

However, just because the Postal Service asserts something in a handbook does not make it law.  Indeed, for decades, the Postal Service also asserted in brief after brief before the PRC that stations and branches were not “post offices” under 404(d).  The Commission nonetheless continued to hear appeals on stations and branches and to insist that the Postal Service needed to follow the discontinuance regulations before closing a station or branch.

The Commission’s previous orders make it clear that the common sense definition of “post office” should apply in this context, regardless of the Postal Service’s technical definition.

The public perception in this regard is crucial.  The Commission has long recognized this fact, and we are reminded of it yet again by a comment made in the Request for Injunctive Relief filed with the PRC by petitioner Marrion Banks.

“Throughout this entire process,” writes Banks, “the US Postal Service has made no effort to provide the customers of the Careywood Post Office with the protection provided for by their own rules and regulations.  On the contrary, we have been treated with disrespect and disdain.”

Banks wrote letters to several USPS officials, and got only one reply, a letter from the Postmaster General’s vice president of delivery operations.  The VP told her that “the USPS didn’t have to follow their closure rules with regard to the Careywood Post Office because we were just a ‘contract postal unit’ not a real post office.  Not a real post office?!  Don’t we send and receive mail at our post office?  Don’t we pay the same postal rates as everyone else?!”

The Postal Service realizes that it may be on shaky ground with its first argument, so the Motion to Dismiss proceeds to make a second argument involving the “sole source” standard.

 

2. Even Under the “Sole Source” Standard, 39 U.S.C. §404(d) Does Not Apply to Careywood, ID CPU Because Postal Customers are Served by Nearby Post Offices and Alternate Methods of Access.

The Postal Service argues that the Careywood appeal should be dismissed for the same reason that the Commission dismissed the Alplaus appeal, namely, section 404(d) does not apply under the Knob Fork “sole source” standard.

The Postal Service puts it this way: “Additionally, like in Alplaus, NY, the Careywood, ID CPU is not the ‘only retail postal facility serving the community.’ Here, the Athol Post Office is located within a seven minute drive from the Careywood, ID CPU.”

The comparison of Alplaus and Careywood is indeed significant, but not in the way the Postal Service suggests.

As the Postal Service pointed out in its Alplaus brief, there were indeed many other retail facilities serving that community.  There was another post office a mile away, six other post offices within five miles, and 15 of them within 10 miles.

In addition, there are currently 16 approved postal providers within five miles of Alplaus, and 39 of them within 10 miles.  There are also three self-serve kiosks within 10 miles.

Now consider Careywood.  There are no other post offices within five miles, and there are only three within ten miles.  The post office that Careywood patrons have been directed to, and where over a hundred post office boxes are being transferred, is in Athol, which is 7 miles away.

Yes, it’s a “within a 7-minute drive,” but that’s at an average speed of more than 60 mph, which would require ideal driving conditions — not always the case during Idaho winters or when there’s extra traffic during the tourist season.

According to a local news report about the closing, driving to Athol is not just an inconvenience.  As one patron said, “Especially in winter you don’t want to go traveling down this road every day. It’s too dangerous.”

Within 20 miles of Careywood, there are no approved postal providers, no contract postal units, no automated kiosks, no retailers selling stamps on consignment, and no Village Post Offices or any other alternate access points.

Here’s a list showing the three closest post offices and the nearest alternative access locations to the Careywood CPO.  The locations come from the USPS.com “Find Locations” page, and the distances and drive times come from Google Maps (since the USPS.com site uses “as the crow flies” distances).

Location
Distance Drive Time
(in miles) (in minutes)
Traditional Post Offices
BAYVIEW: 20157 E PERIMETER RD, BAYVIEW ID 83803 6.6 12
ATHOL: 5900 E HIGHWAY 54, ATHOL ID 83801 7 7
COCOLALLA: 31 COCOLALLA LOOP RD, COCOLALLA ID 83813 7.4 11
Self-Service Kiosks
HAYDEN: 109 W HONEYSUCKLE AVE, HAYDEN ID 83835 21.4 22
COEUR D ALENE: 111 N 7TH ST, COEUR D ALENE ID 83814 27.4 33
POST FALLS: 405 N GREENSFERRY RD, POST FALLS ID 83854 31 35
Contract postal units
CPU SUPER: 240 W HAYDEN AVE STE F, HAYDEN, ID 83835-7244 20.8 21
CPU FOOD FRESH: 202 E 5TH ST N, OLDTOWN, ID 83822-9558 35.5 43
Approved Postal Providers (stamp booklets only)
STAPLES: 260 BONNER MALL WAY, PONDERAY, ID 83852-9748 20.4 22
WAL-MART: 476999 HIGHWAY 95, PONDERAY, ID 83852-9738 20.8 23
Approved Postal Providers (several services)
KOOTENAI: 109 1ST ST, KOOTENAI, ID 83840 22.3 26
Village Post Offices
COOLIN: 341 BAYVIEW DR, COOLIN, ID 83821-5011 56.9 80

As the list shows, one would need to travel quite a long distance to take advantage of all the post-PAEA alternatives cited by Commissioner Taub.  They don’t exist in or even near Careywood.

In order to help make its case about the “sole source” standard, the Postal Service’s Motion to Dismiss attaches a couple of pages from the USPS Find Locations site showing places where one can do postal business near Careywood.  Included is this map:

POST OFFICES & APPROVED PROVIDERS WITHIN 20 MILES OF CAREYWOOD

The map is intended to demonstrate that there are several nearby alternatives to the Careywood CPO.  The map shows 14 other post offices and approved providers within 20 miles (as the crow flies), and it gives the impression that the area is well populated with alternatives.

This map, it should be noted, encompasses an area of 3,000 square miles, and the area within a 20-mile radius from Careywood covers over 1,200 square miles.  Fourteen locations in 1,200 square miles is not a lot.

In the case of Alplaus, there were 40 post offices and more than 50 approved postal providers within 15 miles.  USPS.com can’t tell us how many post offices and approved providers there are within 20 miles of Alplaus because searches stop at 50 locations, but there are probably about 150 — ten times the number for Careywood.

Here’s a map the Postal Service didn’t include in the Motion to Dismiss. It’s the USPS Find Locations map showing the post offices and approved postal providers within five miles of Careywood.  As you can see, there not a single one.

POST OFFICES & APPROVED PROVIDERS WITHIN 5 MILES OF CAREYWOOD

Here’s a map showing the only three alternative locations with ten miles of Careywood (they’re all post offices).

POST OFFICES & APPROVED PROVIDERS WITHIN 10 MILES OF CAREYWOOD

The Bayview post office, which is actually the closest facility to Careywood in distance, is a longer drive because the route is a slow rural road, not a highway.  The fastest alternative to Careywood is Athol, and that’s the post office Careywood customers are being directed to and where p.o. boxes are being transferred.

Athol is not the same community as Careywood.  They’re not even in the same county.  Athol is in Kootenai County, while Careywood is in Bonner County.  The Careywood CPO is clearly the “only source” of postal services in the community.

Aside from these other post offices, the Postal Service notes that “Careywood, ID CPU customers are eligible for service by carrier delivery, which provides them with both 24-hour access to their mail, and a wide range of retail services available from the carrier.”

Service by carrier delivery is not an alternative to the post office any different from what was available when the PRC ruled on Knob Fork and its progeny.  Besides, who’s going to wait outside for the carrier in the middle of an Idaho winter?

The Postal Service’s argument that the Careywood CPO is not the “sole source” of postal services in the community has no merit.  But the Postal Service’s Motion to Dismiss has a third argument for why the appeal should be dismissed.

 

3. Strong Policy Reasons Support the Postal Service’s Position that the Commission Lacks Jurisdiction to Consider the Appeal of a Contract Renewal Decision Concerning its Contract with a Third-Party CPU Operator

The Postal Service argues that the PRC should not get involved with a CPO case because the Commission “would essentially become a party to contract negotiations, injecting more complexity into the contract negotiation process.”  The Postal Service goes on to state, “Because the participation of the CPU operator would be necessary to perform the analysis required by section 404, a CPU operator could prevent the Postal Service from satisfying section 404 by refusing to cooperate, or it could extort money from the Postal Service in exchange for cooperation.”

The Postal Service cites no previous instances in which anything like this has happened, and it’s hard to imagine a contractor trying to extort money from the Postal Service based on the possibility that the case might be heard by the PRC.

The Postal Service raised a similar objection in Knob Fork when it noted that contractors may sometimes terminate facilities on their own.  The Commission rejected this argument with the following observation:

That the operators of community post offices may cancel the contracts on notice does not show that Congress intended to exclude communities with only contractor-operated facilities from the procedural protections of section 404(b). The changing of contractors would not be an event requiring the section 404(b) procedure.  Additionally, since the Postal Service must continue to provide service to every community in the nation [39 U.S.C.§ 101(a)] and there are provisions to deal with unanticipated inability of post offices to remain functioning (DMM § 113.3), it does not appear that the contractor’s ability to cancel has any bearing on the proper interpretation of section 404(b).

In other words, if there were a problem with the negotiation of a contract, the Postal Service could temporarily suspend services while it looked for another contractor.  Just because contract issues may arise, however, does not mean that Congress meant to exclude contract facilities from 404(b).

One can imagine a situation where the contractor was asking far too much money — as the Postal Service alleges in the Careywood case — but that should be an issue considered during the review of the appeal.  It should not preclude the opportunity for appeal to begin with, and it should not give the Postal Service the freedom to close a CPO without going through a proper discontinuance procedure.

Having presented its three arguments for why the appeal should be dismissed, the Postal Service responds to the petitioner’s application for suspension of the closure while the appeal is heard.

 

4. The relief requested by Petitioner is not practicable to implement at this late stage and would significantly frustrate postal operational plans.

The Postal Service says, basically, that it’s too late to stop the closure.  It has already made numerous arrangements to implement its decision, including notifying the contractor that the contract is terminated, arranging to move equipment, and scheduling various operational changes to coincide with the expiration of the Careywood.  “Thus, Postal Service operational plans for an efficient transition would be frustrated and costly if the Commission were to grant the requested relief.”

As a matter of fact, the Postal Service did not even wait until March 31 to begin the process of closing the post office.  As petitioner Banks says in her letter of Friday, March 27: “To add injury to insult, workers showed up at our Post Office this morning (on the 27th NOT the 28th!) to remove the mailboxes from our Post Office!  The USPS is in such a hurry to shut us down, they can’t even follow the procedures they laid out in their own letter of closing to us!”

The Postal Service’s arguments on this score are not convincing.  Carrie Bartelt would probably be more than happy to continue operations while the appeal is heard, even without a contract, as she was doing last August.  Arrangements to move equipment can be postponed, as can other operational changes, whatever they may be (the Postal Service doesn’t say).

As for being “costly,” the Postal Service provides no estimate of the costs.  But how expensive could they be?

The Postal Service announced on Friday that it was postponing implementation of the 1.9 percent rate increase on First Class Mail while it works out the issues on the other classes of mail with the PRC.  That delay will cost the Postal Service approximately $1.8 million per day.  Yet the Postal Service decided to delay the increase simply because it didn’t want to burden customers with multiple implementation dates.

If the Postal Service can afford to give up that kind of revenue to help out its biggest customers, it should be able to keep Careywood’s post office open while an appeal is heard.

In any event, whatever costs or problems postponing the closure may cause, they are of the Postal Service’s own making.  The Careywood appeal was filed on March 19.  The Postal Service knew then that it might be a good idea to keep the office open while the appeal was heard, which is exactly what it does when a “regular” post office closing is appealed.

 

The cruel irony

As discussed in this USPS history, community post offices and contract postal units have a long tradition in the United States going back to the 1880s.  Many communities, like Careywood, depend on them as their “sole source of postal services.”

Some people believe that the Postal Service should be expanding its network of privately contracted post offices.  These units are generally less expensive for the Postal Service than USPS-operated offices, and the cost savings help balance the books and keep rates down.

A 2012 GAO report notes that contract units often have longer hours than a regular post office, they have a lower cost to the Postal Service, and they play an important part in expanding access to retail services.  The GAO concluded that “it is important for USPS to consider the role of CPUs as USPS works to develop and implement its retail network plan and control costs.”

The Careywood CPO plays just such a role in the Postal Service’s retail network.  Closing it makes no sense.  Bill Hardy, a retired college professor who has lived in Careywood for seven years, told this to the local news: “The irony of this is that Carrie has brought in successful entrepreneurship to the post office, and the reward for that is to be hammered into oblivion.  It’s just cruel.”

Careywood has had a successful CPO for over 40 years, and under the new, enthusiastic contract postmaster, it was poised for many more years of service to the community.  Why in the world would the Postal Service want to close such a post office?

That, of course, is the kind of question that would be considered if the appeal moves forward.  The Postal Service would be required to produce an administrative record showing costs and revenues, and the Commission would be able to evaluate if the decision to close the post office was reasonable or if it was “arbitrary and capricious.”

That’s the purpose of an appeal to the PRC.  The Commission should reject the Postal Service’s Motion to Dismiss and immediately issue an order keeping the post office open on March 31.

(Photo credit: Careywood PO; the other images come from a KREM2 news video: petitioner Marrion Banks; Careywood post office and convenience store; contract postmaster Carrie Bartelt and customer; Careywood bulletin board)

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