From MIKE SWEENEY
When the United States Postal Service announced that it had financial reasons to close the Ukiah Post Office, many voices said: “Show us the numbers.”
Since the USPS is a government agency, I assumed such information was in the public record and filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The USPS denied it.
Both the City of Ukiah and Congressman Mike Thompson’s office asked for the same information, and they were denied too.
Then the City asked for permission to inspect the post office building so that it could make an independent evaluation of repair costs, if any. More than two weeks after this request, the USPS hasn’t bothered to reply.
This stonewalling doesn’t do the USPS any good. It arouses mistrust and casts doubt on the truthfulness of any of their numbers. As Councilman Doug Crane told a local newspaper, “It appears to be rationalized math. Without their willingness to disclose what supports the math how can we accept or consider that math is valid in any way?”
Rather than saving money, closure of the Ukiah post office actually looks like a financial loser for USPS. That’s because the cost of major remodeling to the carrier annex on Orchard Avenue to replace the downtown post office will be $360,000 by the USPS estimate and possibly much more.
To justify that big out-of-pocket new expenditure, the USPS claims it faces extravagant costs for repair, utilities and maintenance for the old post office. But if these costs were real, the USPS would provide backup and welcome the city’s inspection. So we can only conclude that they aren’t real costs, but instead made-up numbers to justify a decision. As Crane puts it, “rationalized math.”
So if there isn’t a cost savings, why does the USPS propose such an unpopular action? The answer probably lies in the troubles of the USPS at the national level.
When the volume of mail hit an all-time high in 2006, the Bush Administration and Congress decided that the USPS could afford to build up a gigantic trust fund in only 10 years to cover future retiree health care. So a bill was passed that imposed a “pre-funding” mandate that is beyond what any other entity, public or private, must endure.
The result has been financial catastrophe for the USPS. As Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told a congressional subcommittee on March 2, the law makes USPS pay an additional $5.5 billion each year as pre-funding for future costs, in addition to paying the current year costs for retiree health care like any normal corporation does. This pushed the USPS from operating PROFITS of $3.3 billion in 2007 and $2.8 billion in 2008 into big losses.
Amend the law, said the Postmaster General. He is supported in this position by the two postal workers’ unions, defenders of those retirees, which point out that there are big surpluses in two USPS pension funds that can be applied to future retiree health care.
But until Congress wakes up on this issue, the USPS is drowning in a sea of artificial red ink. So draconian cuts have been ordered by USPS management in Washington D.C. Just last week, USPS announced that it intends to lay off 7,500 workers and close 2,000 post offices in the next year.
Since the USPS is a huge organization with 583,000 employees and 36,400 post offices, the top management in Washington has no direct knowledge of local circumstances and has to achieve cuts by issuing directives to its many district managers. Their jobs are on the line too, since USPS threatens to eliminate seven districts. So there is pressure to offer up cuts to Washington, quickly, whether or not the cuts will actually save money. It’s a hasty bureaucratic stampede toward liquidation.
A superficial glance at Ukiah, which is probably all we got, persuaded somebody that there was duplication because the USPS owns two different sites—the downtown post office and the Orchard Street carrier annex. The fact that the downtown post office is the customer service facility, and infinitely better suited for that task, apparently carried no weight. Add some “rationalized math,” and the San Francisco District had fresh meat to offer up to their masters in Washington, D.C.
Where does that leave Ukiah? Giving up is an option, except that would cut the heart out of downtown and burden us with another empty, boarded-up hulk like the Palace Hotel. And the two crowded intersections serving Orchard Avenue would congeal to gridlock with the extra traffic.
The other option is to protest. To point out all the ways that closure hurts Ukiah and doesn’t help the USPS. Despite its arrogance and quasi-independence, the USPS is still a branch of the federal government that is subject to legal procedures that must be followed before it can abandon a post office. The case for closure in Ukiah is full of holes. If we protest loudly and persistently, the USPS may ultimately recognize its error and go off in search of another community to sacrifice.
Mike Sweeney rents a box at the downtown post office. He plans to attend the public forum with the USPS on April 21, 6:30 p.m., Ukiah Valley Conference Center.