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Postal Regulatory Commission balks at speeding review of USPS downsizing plans

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There’s some moderately big news out of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which has denied the U.S. Postal Service’s request for fast-track review of plans to weaken first-class service standards and close  up to approximately 250 mail processing plants.

Last month, USPS lawyers had asked the commission to issue a legally required advisory opinion by mid-April. But in a Tuesday order, the PRC said “the complexity of the case appears to justify the schedule as issued.” Under that timetable, the commission won’t release the opinion until late July at the earliest.

Long story short, this is bad news for postal leaders eager to get the downsizing under way as soon as possible. Although the commission’s opinions are non-binding, they are closely read on Capitol Hill. Thus, it will be politically difficult for the Postal Service to proceed with any plant closings before this particular opinion comes out.

Those proposed closings are ultimately expected to eliminate 28,000 jobs, a fact that does not enthuse members of Congress with plants in their states or districts. To mollify them, the Postal Service has already promised to hold off on any closings until mid-May. The latest order, however, probably means nothing will happen until at least mid-summer.

The Postal Service is disappointed by the decision, spokeswoman Sue Brennan said in a statement. “However, we will continue to move forward with our processes and communicate fully with stakeholders, as we pursue efforts to optimize our network and cut costs.”

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Postal Service’s FOIA position termed “bizarre.”

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Between crumbling finances, tense relations with Congress, and three major labor contracts still to hammer out, you might think the U.S. Postal Service has better things to do than pick an open records fight with another government agency.

Not according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

In a federal lawsuit filed this month, the commission charges the Postal Service with  “improperly” claiming exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act to withhold information needed to show that a former elected official broke the law. To underscore its displeasure, the commission also put out a a news release in which Chairwoman Ann Ravel called the Postal Service’s stance “bizarre,” adding  that USPS officials have routinely provided such information in the past. Because the Postal Service’s current position would also halt enforcement of similar laws in other states,  Ravel said, “we feel compelled to take action.”

Citing the lawsuit, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer declined any  comment.

The standoff has its origins in a 2008 recall election involving William Eisen, then an L.A.-area local school board member. According to the commission, Eisen allegedly sent out two mailings opposing his recall, but “falsely indicated” that a taxpayers’ group and regional political club were responsible. To make its case, however, the commission needs to know how many pieces of mail were sent out under Eisen’s bulk mailing permit number around the time of the alleged violation.

That’s what the Postal Service has refused to provide, on the grounds that the information is proprietary and “would not be a good business practice to disclose” under the FOIA, according to the lawsuit.

Backing the Postal Service’s position is the Office of Government Information Services, a kind of ombudsman at the National Archives and Records Administration. Despite President Obama’s instructions for agencies to administer the Freedom of Information Act with a presumption of openness, the Postal Service, which is basically self-supporting, “has commercial considerations that other agencies may not have and properly applied the exemptions under the guise of good business practices,” the lawsuit says in summarizing OGIS’ view.

As to the man behind the fracas, Eisen was in fact recalled, but has denied any wrongdoing, according to press accounts.


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IG: Postal Service usually had valid business case for past mail plant mergers

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You can’t call this a game-changer, but the U.S. Postal Service’s inspector general is offering some indirect support for the mail carrier’s plans to close more than half of its mail processing plants.

In a newly released round-up, the IG’s office pulled together audits of 32 previous area mail processing consolidations and found that 31 had a valid business case. Those business cases “were supported by adequate capacity, increased efficiency, reduced work hours and mail processing costs, and improved service standards,” the roundup says. The IG’s office did note, however, that four of the 31 consolidations were poorly executed and recommended that the Postal Service improve communications with stakeholders.

For USPS executives, the findings nonetheless offer evidence that they know what they’re doing in pushing to close up to 252 of about 461 remaining processing facilities. That plan, which would erase some 28,000 jobs, has sparked a torrent of opposition from postal workers and politicians. Last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, became one of the latest members of Congress to go on record against the proposed downsizing.

“This plan has profoundly negative implications for timely and reliable mail service in northern, western and eastern Maine, a geographically vast and rural area of our state,” Snowe said in a news release after visiting an eastern Maine processing and distribution facility that employs 183 people and is slated for consolidation with another plant.

According to Snowe, the consolidation is supposed to save $7.6 million. But in the release, she declared herself “unpersuaded.” She is convinced, however, that it would “disproportionately slow down mail delivery to rural areas of Maine.”

Sentiments like that prompted the Postal Service last month to freeze closings of all processing plants and post offices until mid-May, although studies will proceed. As part of the downsizing, the mail carrier is also pursuing a change in service standards that will drop overnight delivery of some first-class mail.


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U.S. Postal Service ranked tops (yes, you read that right)

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At the end of a dismal year for the U.S. Postal Service, let’s end on an upbeat note: For all its problems, the nation’s mail carrier is the best-performing among those of major industrialized countries.

That’s the judgment of Oxford Strategic Consulting, a British firm that recently took a look at the operations of 19 national posts, including those of Great Britain, China, India and Japan. When it came to delivering letters and other mail, the U.S. Postal Service averaged almost 269,000 pieces per delivery employee last year, far ahead of runner-up Australia Post, where the average was about 167,000 pieces, the Oxford study found.

The Postal Service didn’t fare as well on package delivery, placing only sixth in the number of parcels per delivery employee among the 19 nations. Overall, however, it was ranked as the top performer, based on a matrix of three broad yardsticks: Provision of access to vital services, operational resource efficiency, and performance and public trust.

USPS officials are “pleased,” Giselle Valera, the agency’s vice president for global business, said in a statement.  “Our employees take great pride in working hard every day on goals that lead to operational efficiencies and garnering the faith of the American people in the United States Postal Service.”

The full study is not yet available online, although Oxford provided the executive summary to Federal Times. Here, however, is a link to the press release summarizing some of the findings.

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Why the Postal Service’s halt to plant and P.O. closings may not mean much

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So, how big a deal is the U.S. Postal Service’s freeze on closings of post offices and mail processing plants?

Less than you might think, perhaps.

No doubt, today’s abruptly announced moratorium was made under mounting political pressure from Capitol Hill Democrats. “Cave-in” was how Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Dennis Ross, R-Fla., described it in a news release.

But the long-term consequences for the Postal Service’s downsizing plans won’t necessarily be that pronounced. Last week, for example, a USPS spokeswoman told Federal Times that processing plant closings would start in April at the earliest. The five-month freeze would push that timeframe back only until May. As American Postal Workers Union President Cliff Guffey stressed on the union’s web site, the freeze “is a temporary reprieve.”

And by getting in the way of the Postal Service’s cost-cutting agenda, members of Congress have put themselves on the line with an implied promise to come up with a better alternative. Or, to quote from a letter signed by 20 senators last week: “We believe it is very important to give Congress the opportunity to reform the Postal Service in a way that protects universal service while ensuring its financial viability for decades to come.”

But to state the obvious (a favorite pastime here in the nation’s capital), lawmakers have already had that opportunity and thus far failed to deliver. Don’t be too hard on them: Fixing an organization that’s losing almost $100 million per week would tax the savviest turnaround artist.

For the APWU and other postal unions, the answer is to let the Postal Service tap into as much as $75 billion in purported pension fund overpayments.  Even when you discount the fact that the Government Accountability Office recently dismissed the idea that any erroneous overpayments occurred, a refund is not in the cards as long as Republicans control the House, which they will for at least another year. Short of some miraculously lucrative new business lines or Americans’ mass rediscovery of the continuing relevance of snail mail, it’s hard to imagine postal revenues rebounding any time soon.

Lawmakers may have thus put themselves in a box. If they can’t find out a way by May, they could have to concede that the Postal Service’s route—however distasteful for thousands of communities and USPS employees—is basically the only one they have.

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Postal Service seeking to raise stamp prices

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However you buy your stamps, you'll probably be paying more this January, under proposed U.S. Postal Service rate increases unveiled today.

Better start stocking up on your first-class “Forever” stamps because they will likely cost a penny more in January, under a U.S. Postal Service regulatory filing today. The proposed increase to 45 cents is part of a package that would boost the price of a postcard from 29 cents to 32 cents and also raise the cost of sending international letters, standard mail and periodicals, the agency said in a news release. (For a fuller rundown, check out this fact sheet.)

Under a 2006 law, the Postal Service can raise rates relatively easily as long as the cumulative increase doesn’t exceed the inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Price Index, which in this case is 2.1 percent, according to the Postal Service.  The proposed increases were filed today with the Postal Regulatory Commission, a five-member oversight body. The PRC now has 45 days to review them to make sure they don’t violate the inflation cap, USPS spokesman Dave Partenheimer said.

Assuming the commission gives its OK, the increases would take effect Jan. 22 and would be the first for a first-class stamp since May 2009. All told, the rate changes will generate about $888 million in new annual revenue, Partenheimer said.

“The overall average price increase is small and is needed to help address our current financial crisis,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a statement. “We continue to take actions within our control to increase revenue in other ways and to aggressively cut costs. To return to sound financial footing, we urgently need enactment of comprehensive, long-term legislation to provide the Postal Service with a more flexible business model.”

If anyone’s wondering, by the way, the Postal Service’s appeal of a PRC smackdown in last year’s “exigent” rate increase case is still technically alive.

In that case–completely separate from what was proposed today–the Postal Service sought to raise rates beyond the inflation cap on the grounds that the recession had dealt an extraordinary blow to mail volumes. After the commission unanimously rejected that argument in September 2010, the Postal Service appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which sent the case back to the PRC this May.

There it remains; earlier this month, however, the Postal Service asked for a stay of all proceedings until Dec. 15.  Proposals by the Obama administration and members of Congress could change the ratemaking landscape, USPS lawyers wrote.

“Obviously, it would  be grossly premature to attempt to anticipate what, if anything, might come out of these initiatives,” they said. “Yet by the same token, neither would it seem prudent to ignore these developments entirely.”



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Letter carriers union looks to Wall Street for help with “pro-growth” postal plan

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The National Association of Letter Carriers announced today that it is hiring the Lazard Group investment bank, along with former presidential adviser Ron Bloom, to help develop “a viable long-term,  pro-growth business plan for the Postal
Service,” according to a news release.

Bloom, who also comes out of the financial sector, is no stranger to troubled enterprises, having worked as President Obama’s “car czar” during the bailout of the auto industry. He went on to serve as assistant to the president for manufacturing policy, but recently left his White House post for family reasons, according to news reports.

Bloom also has long-standing ties to the United Steelworkers. While Lazard and organized labor might look like an odder fit, NALC President Fredric Rolando said that the union has had some prior dealings with Lazard and liked what it had done.

In a conference call with reporters, Rolando made clear that the overall goal is to come up with a bullish alternative to the cost-cutting agenda–such as eliminating most Saturday delivery–that the Postal Service is pursuing to deal with a plunge in revenue.  Not clear, however, is precisely what Lazard and Bloom are supposed to produce (a report, legislative proposals?), how quickly they might produce it and how much it will cost the union.

“I really couldn’t tell you exactly how this is going to unfold yet,” Rolando said.  The move was announced during a national NALC conference on the Postal Service’s financial crisis. The mail carrier’s other three unions are not involved.

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Postal Service’s 2011 losses narrow (but only because of a gimmick)

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If only on paper, the U.S. Postal Service’s financial condition has just shown some stunning improvement. That’s because Congress pushed back a $5.5 billion retiree health care payment originally due last Friday (i.e., Sept. 30) until Nov. 18, according to short-term spending legislation approved in the last week.

Sept. 30 was the final day of fiscal 2011, for which the Postal Service had been predicting a total loss of about $10 billion, in part because of that legally required retiree health care obligation.  With that payment now delayed until November, the expected 2011 deficit plummets to $4.5 billion.

Of course, the mail carrier has a similar payment due next September, meaning that its 2012 retiree health care obligations just doubled to around $11 billion. Not to worry, though: USPS leaders say they can’t make the installment originally due Sept. 30 and chances are that they won’t be able to make next year’s, either–even though both still count on its books as expenses.

After all, it’s only money.


New Postal Service ads cite old-fashioned benefits

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Say this for snail mail: it’s never been victimized by a computer hacker.

That, in essence, is the point of a new U.S. Postal Service television advertising campaign that seeks to make a virtue of the mail’s retro qualities.

“This is how people and business connect,” runs the voiceover in one ad as the video shows a jaunty letter carrier on her rounds. “Feeling safe and secure that important letters and information don’t get lost in thin air or disappear with a click, but are delivered from person to person.”

Take that, Internet.

The two commercials, aimed at boosting businesses’ use of the mail, aired for a couple of days last month and then went back up over the weekend for a run on network and cable channels that will last through this Saturday, USPS spokeswoman Patricia Licata said in an email.

The campaign is the first of its kind in almost a dozen years, Licata said, “and we feel that it’s time to promote a channel that is too often overlooked and underestimated.” Calling the information proprietary, she declined to give the campaign’s cost, but said that the Postal Service’s total ad spending in fiscal 2011 was about $147 million, roughly the same as the preceding year.



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Living people to be pictured on postage stamps and other USPS news

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Once again, there’s so much happening with the U.S. Postal Service that it seems simplest to package (no pun intended) the latest developments together. Here goes:

1) In that rare bit of news that doesn’t revolve around the mail carrier’s cratering finances, the Postal Service today announced that it’s changed a long-standing policy so living people can be depicted on postage stamps. Under the previous guidelines, an individual had to be dead for at least five years to be so honored; starting next year, Americans “will see acclaimed musicians, sports stars, writers, artists and nationally-known figures” on stamps while they’re still with us, according to a USPS news release.

Postal officials are inviting members of the public to submit the top five living individuals they would like to see on stamps via Facebook and Twitter. People can also actually use a stamp to write the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, Room 3300, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20260-3501. And before anyone rushes to nominate their grandkids (or even a favorite mail carrier), keep in mind that the advisory committee is looking for folks “who have made extraordinary contributions to American society and culture,” according to the official guidelines.

2) Back to grim realities: The Postal Service’s four unions are wrapping up preparations for tomorrow’s nationwide “Save America’s Postal Service” day, which will feature rallies in all 435 congressional districts from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. local times.  The chief goal is to build public and political support for legislation by Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., that could open the door for the Postal Service to take advantage of tens of billions of dollars in pension overpayments identified by an outside actuary and the agency’s inspector general. The bill already has 215 co-sponsors, including some Republicans, but has so far gone nowhere in the House, where other GOP lawmakers dispute whether any such overpayments occurred.

3) On Friday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., jumped into the scrum on the other side by introducing a Senate version of a postal overhaul sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that was just approved last week by a House oversight subcommittee.  McCain has a history of—at least every now and then—working successfully across party lines, but the debate preceding that subcommittee vote showed just how deep partisan divisions run on postal issues.

4) And, as federal agencies undergo another bout of shutdown jitters, let’s not forget that the Postal Service has a stake in the latest Capitol Hill showdown. Under the continuing resolution that would keep agencies operating past the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, the deadline for the Postal Service to make a $5.5 billion retiree health care prepayment would also be pushed back from Sept. 30 to Nov. 18. If lawmakers don’t pass the CR by Friday, the Postal Service is headed for an embarrassing default, according to repeated warnings from Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe.


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