Postal watchdog keeps an eye on potential closures

Seth Perlman/AP

A U.S. Postal Service watchdog expressed confidence Wednesday that the agency will move slowly and deliberately in implementing any changes related to the consolidation or closure of post offices across the country.

Ruth Goldway, chairwoman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, said she believes USPS will “stagger” changes in the operations of thousands of post offices being evaluated as part of its large-scale effort to drastically cut costs. USPS, which runs 33,000 post offices and more than 450 mail processing facilities nationwide, is considering shuttering or restructuring 3,700 post offices and 220 processing facilities. A moratorium on the possible closure of those offices and facilities expires May 15.

“We are pressing the Postal Service quite hard” to get answers on how the agency plans to carry out its effort to rein in costs through restructuring and closing post offices, said Goldway, who spoke during a PRC meeting in Washington on Wednesday. She said the commission has not talked with USPS about the fate of the facilities because the panel does not have jurisdiction over them. USPS decisions to close or consolidate post offices can be appealed to PRC; if the Postal Service moves quickly after May 15 to shutter offices, the commission could experience a dramatic increase in its workload.

Goldway, however, said she does not think that will happen. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe in an appearance on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers on Sunday took pains to emphasize that USPS will not start shutting down post offices on May 15. “Our date of the 15th is not a date when we are going to make all kind of changes,” Donahoe said during the program. “It’s never been intended to be a shutdown date for anything.” He said the agency will move “slowly and methodically” to make incremental changes over the summer and will “take a timeout” in the fall because of the increase in mail volume due to the holidays and the 2012 election season.

A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers has asked Donahoe to extend the moratorium on closures until after Congress passes legislation reforming the agency. The Senate last week passed its postal reform bill, and pressure is building for the House to vote on its legislation so that the two chambers can reconcile their versions in conference.

The independent PRC, which USPS funds, has broad authority to review postal pricing, service performance, product development and related issues. While the Postal Service is required to report to the body, some of its recommendations are only advisory. But they can carry a lot of weight -- especially with lawmakers.

A provision in the Senate bill would require the Postal Service to explain to Congress its reasons for rejecting any of PRC’s recommendations.

Clarification: While some of the commission’s recommendations to the Postal Service are advisory, most of their decisions -- including those related to rate cases, complaint cases and post office closing appeals -- are binding. The Postal Service has to file a request with the PRC for an advisory opinion whenever the agency proposes a change in service that would have nationwide impact. Examples of such proposed changes include many that lawmakers care about, such as eliminating Saturday mail delivery and closing post offices.

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