The PRC’s Public Representative recommends changes for emergency suspensions

The Postal Regulatory Commission may take another look at the issues surrounding emergency suspensions of post offices.

The Commission’s Public Representative has filed extensive comments for the Commission’s 701 Report to Congress and the President.  This report provides an opportunity for the Commission and industry stakeholders to assess the effectiveness of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act and to make recommendations for improving postal law.

The Public Representative’s comments run to 73 pages and cover a wide range of topics, including the Postal Service’s financial situation, the rate system, market tests, and Negotiated Service Agreements.  The comments also contain a section about a subject that has been a recurring theme on Save the Post Office — emergency suspensions.

These suspensions have been the source of controversy and the object of criticism for many years.  Sometimes the reason cited  for the suspension by the Postal Service seems suspect.  Sometimes the suspensions go on for way too long without being resolved.  Plus, when individuals have filed an appeal over a suspension with the Commission, it has invariably been dismissed as outside the Commission’s jurisdiction because the statute governing post office discontuances — 39 USC 404(d) — does not mention suspensions.

The Commission has been aware of the problems with emergency suspensions for a long time.  In 2008, it instituted a public inquiry proceeding (Docket No. PI2010-1) to investigate them.

“That inquiry,” notes the Public Representative in his comments, “disclosed a relatively large number of emergency suspensions, some lasting decades, during which time no effort was made to make a formal closing determination as required by section 404(d).”

The Commission closed the public inquiry docket without taking action, but continued to monitor emergency suspensions.  Rather than diminishing, the number of suspensions continued to mount up.

Just a few weeks ago, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill called out the Postal Service for its use of “emergency suspension” authority to close down Missouri post offices, potentially circumventing the Postal Service’s standard discontinuance process.  “I am concerned,” wrote McCaskill in a letter to Postmaster General Megan Brennan, that “communities are being adversely affected without the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process.”

The Public Representative has made several very useful recommendations for the 701 Report, which would go at least some way toward addressing the festering problems associated with suspensions.  

Not genuine emergencies

As discussed in this previous post, according to data filed by the Postal Service for the 2015 annual compliance report, at the beginning of FY 2015 there were 518 offices under suspension.  By the end of the fiscal year, there were almost 600.  (A list of the suspensions is here.)

As these growing numbers indicate, many suspensions occurred several years ago, and it’s very unlikely that these post offices will ever reopen.  They are in a kind of limbo.  They’re closed, but they haven’t been “closed” under the terms of the discontinuance statute, so the Postal Service never went through a formal discontinuance procedure, and the non-closings aren’t subject to appeal to the PRC.

In addition to all the unresolved suspensions, there’s the problem of manufactured emergencies.  Sometimes circumstances are clearly beyond the control of the Postal Service, but sometimes — as in the case of many lease terminations and staffing problems — it seems that the Postal Service wanted to close the post office and the suspension was just an easy way to do that.

As the Public Representative comments, such situations “did not appear to be genuine ‘emergencies’ that warranted an emergency suspension.”

 

Lease issues

The 600 emergency suspensions in effect at the end of FY 2015 were caused primarily by four circumstances.  Over 200 suspensions involved safety and health issues or damage to the building, and about  100 were due an inability to find qualified personnel to staff the office.

The most common reason for a suspension was a lease termination.   It accounted for 266 of the 600 suspensions.  In FY 2014, some 44 post offices were closed due to lease issues, and 36 more were suspended in FY 2015 for the same cause.

Lease issues are not only the most common reason for a suspension.  They also cause the most controversy.

There are undoubtedly situations where the termination of a lease is beyond the control of the Postal Service.  Sometimes the owner simply has other plans for the property, or perhaps the owner and the Postal Service are too far apart in what they regard as fair terms for the new lease.

But in many cases, the owner of the building and the communities served by the post office end up feeling that the Postal Service wanted to close the post office and it helped create the lease issue.

In any case, lease problems are rarely “emergencies.”  Since the date when a lease will end is known years in advance and there is plenty of time to either negotiate a renewal or find a new location.

De facto closings

Emergency suspensions are supposed to be temporary.  The Postal Service’s is supposed to either solve the problem that led to the suspension or proceed with a formal discontinuance study to close the post office permanently.  But when a suspension goes on for years, it’s really a closure, just by another name.

In his comments for the 701 Report, the Public Representative points to one of the main complaints about the suspensions: “It appeared that the Postal Service had been using emergency suspensions as a means of imposing de facto closing of post offices.”

In so doing, the Postal Service avoids going through the rigorous discontinuance procedures and denies communities an opportunity to have meaningful input into the decision-making process, which is one of the main objectives of 404(d).

A related problem is that both the Postal Service and the Commission view emergency suspensions as outside the scope of 404(d).  When a community appeals a post office closure involving a suspension, the Postal Service files a motion to dismiss, arguing appeals on suspensions are outside the scope of the Commission’s jurisdiction.  The Commission invariably grants the motion, leaving the community with no recourse.

Recommendations

As the Public Representative explains,  404(d)  establishes standards and procedures for closing or consolidating post offices, but it says nothing about closing post offices for emergency suspensions.  The Postal Service’s own policies and regulations provide many details about the circumstances justifying a suspension and the procedures for implementing one, but there’s little anyone can do when the Postal Service does not follow its own policies.

It may thus be time for Congress to include emergency suspensions in the next version of postal reform legislation.  The Public Representative makes three recommendations for creating a new statute that would improve the way the Postal Service uses the emergency suspension provisions.

1. Establish deadlines for initiating discontinuance studies for leases that are terminated or not extended.

This recommendation pertains to cases where the Postal Service can anticipate a lease renewal problem. It would require the Postal Service to initiate a discontinuance study not later than the date upon which either party to the lease exercises its right to terminate (or fails to exercise a right to extend the lease). Usually that date is the end of the lease, so this means the Postal Service would have to initiate a discontinuance study as soon as the lease ends and the post office is suspended, if not before then.

2. Establish deadlines for initiating discontinuance studies for Post Offices whose operations are suspended.

Once a post office is suspended, the Postal Service is supposed to either solve the problem and reopen it (even in a new location), or proceed to close it permanently through a discontinuance study. But some post offices remain suspended for years that way. This requirement would put a deadline on how long a post office could be suspended before a discontinuance study is begun.

3. Establish deadlines for completing discontinuance studies.

For most of the 600 suspended post offices, the Postal Service has not even initiated a discontinuance study, even though the suspension may have taken place years ago, but sometimes the Postal Service initiates the study and doesn’t complete it.  This new requirement would put a time limit on how long a discontinuance study can take.

In those cases where the Postal Service does not fulfill these requirements and the suspension becomes a de facto discontinuance, concludes the Public Representative, the persons served by the affected post office should have a right of appeal to the Commission.

The complete comments of the Public Representative are here.  Previous posts about emergency suspensions (which appear in the slide show at the top) are archived here.

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