oversight

U.S. Postal Service: Information on Emergency Suspensions of Operations at Post Offices

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-04-23.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

United States
General Accounting  Office
Washington, D.C. 20548

General   Government   Division


B-276778

April 23, 1997

The Honorable John M. McHugh
Chairman, Subcommittee on the Postal Service
Committee on Government Reform
  and Oversight
House of Representatives

Subject:     U.S. Postal Service: Information on Emergencv Susnensions of
             Operations at Post Offices

Dear Mr. Chairman:

This letter responds to your request for information on emergency suspensions
of operations at post offices by the Postal Service. As you know, Congress has
long been concerned with providing effective postal service to all areas of the
country. Federal law requires that the Postal Service assess community and
other needs before closing or consolidating post offices.’ Emergency
suspensions-the temporary closure of post offices because of emergencies and
other conditions, such as a natural disaster or a lease termination-are not
specifically governed by statute. Post offices under emergency suspension
affect customers in much the same way as post offices that are officially closed
in that services from those post offices are also no longer available. We briefly
described emergency suspensions of post offices in our earlier report on post
office closures,2 and as requested, we are now providing information on (1) the
Postal Service process for suspending operations at post offices, (2) the number
of post offices whose operations were suspended since fiscal year 1992 and the
reasons for those suspensions, and (3) the number of post offices currently
under suspension and the length of time these suspensions have been in effect.




‘A closure is when the Service permanently discontinues the operations of an
independent post office, and provides affected customers with alternative postal
servrces, such as rural route services. A consolidation is when the Service replaces an
independent post office with a station, branch, or contractor-operated community post
office. A consohdation is a form of closure under 39 U.S.C. 404(b).

‘U.S. Postal Service: Information on Post Office Closures. Apneals, and Affected
Communities, (GAO/GGD-97-38BR, Mar. 11, 1997)
B-276778


RESULTS IN BRIEF

Under its policies and procedures, the Postal Service may suspend the operations of a
post office under any one of several emergency conditions that constitute a threat to the
safety and health of postal employees or customers, or to the security of the mail. These
emergencies include circumstances such as a natural disaster or a lease termination.
Service district managers are authorized to suspend operations of post offices and are
required to (1) notify Service headquarters in writing of any emergency suspension and
(2) notify affected customers of the reason for the suspension, alternative services
available, the nearest post office and its hours of operation, and a person to contact for
more information. Withm 6 months of an emergency suspension, the district managers
are to decide whether to reopen the post office or to initiate a study of the feasibility of
permanently closing it. There is no time limit for completing such a study, and the post
office remains in emergency suspension status while the study is being completed.

Since the beginning of fiscal year 1992 through March 31, 1997, Service records show that
the operations of 651 post offices have been suspended. The reasons for these
suspensions varied, but almost one-half were caused by the termination of the post
offices’ lease or rental agreement. To date, the Service has reopened 31 of the 651 post
offices that were under suspension.

As of March 31, 1997, 470 post offices were under emergency suspension. The operations
of these post offices have been suspended for periods ranging from a few days to over 10
years. Of the 470 whose operations were suspended, 348 were undergoing a study to
determine the feasibility of permanently closing them. For the remaining 122, the Service
had approved the district managers’ recommendations to permanently close 45, and was
reviewing the district managers’recommendations to permanently close the other 77.

BACKGROUND

The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 provides that no post office can be closed for
economic reasons alone. The 1976 Amendments to the act added provisions that govern
whether and how the Postal Service can close post offices, and that give affected
customers the right to appeal Service determinations to close post offices to the
independent Postal Rate Commission. Emergency suspensions of the operations of post
offices by the Postal Service are not governed by statute and cannot be appealed. While
under emergency suspension, post offices are, in effect, closed and affect customers in
much the same way that officially closed post offices do in that they no longer offer
services to their customers.

As we reported in our earlier report on post office closures,3 under Postal Service policy,
district managers may initiate a study of the feasibility of permanently closing a post
office if one of three conditions exists. One of these conditions is that the post


‘GAO/GGD-97-38BR.
  Page 2                     GAWXD-97-7Q)B    Emergency   Snspensioxw   of Post Office   Operations
B-276778


office is under emergency suspension4 In fact, Service records indicate that most post
offices whose operations are suspended are eventually closed.

POSTAL SERVICE EMERGENCY SUSPENSION PROCESS

The Postal Operations Manual and the Post Office Discontinuance Guide (Handbook PO-
101) set forth Postal Service policies and procedures concerning the emergency
suspension of post offices. They provide that Service district managers, Customer Service
and Sales, may suspend the operations of any post office under their jurisdiction when an
emergency or other conditions require such action. The Service defines an emergency as
an occurrence that constitutes a threat to the safety and health of postal employees or
customers, or to the security of the maiI. Circumstances that the Service has delineated
that may justify an emergency suspension include, but are not limited to, (1) a natural
disaster; (2) termination of a lease or rental agreement when other suitable quarters are
not available; (3) lack of qualified personnel to operate the post office; (4) a severe health
or safety hazard in the work environment; (5) severe damage to, or destruction of, the
post office building; and (6) lack of adequate measures to safeguard the office or its
revenues.

Service procedures require the district managers to provide immediate written notice of
aII post office emergency suspensions to the Senior Vice President, Marketing. Also, the
district managers are to notify affected customers by individual letter of the effective date
and reason for the suspension, the alternative services available, the nearest post office
and its hours of operation, and the name and telephone number of a person to contact for
more information. The district managers are to establish alternative postal services for
the affected communities as q&My as possible after a suspension, and if there is enough
time before the suspension takes effect, the district managers should conduct a
community meeting to explam the circumstances of the suspension and obtain customers’
opinions about alternate services. Finally, the district managers are to decide within 6
months of a suspension whether to (1) reopen the post office by fiIIing the postmaster
position, securing alternative quarters, or taking any other necessary corrective action or
(2) initiate a study to determine the feasibility of permanently closing the post office. If a
study is initiated, the post office still remains in emergency suspension status, and there
is no set time limit for the completion of the study.

NUMBER OF AND REASONS FOR POSTAL SERVICE EMERGENCY SUSPENSIONS
SINCE FISCAL YEAR 1992

According to Postal Service data, since the beginning of fiscal year 1992 through March
31, 1997, the Postal Service has suspended the operations of 651 post offices for a variety
of reasons. For the 5 completed fiscal years 1992 through 1996, the number of
suspensions ranged from a high of 238 m fiscal year 1993 to a low of 53 in fiscal year


‘The other conditions are (1) a postmaster vacancy or (2) special circumstances exist, such as the
incorporation of two communities mto one.

  Page 3                      GAO/GGD-97-70R    Emergency   Suspensions   of Post Office   Operations
B-276778


1995, and averaged 123 per year. Through the first 6.5 months of fiscal year 1997, an
additional 37 post offices’ operations were suspended.5 Figure 1 shows the number of
post office suspensions for each year over this approximate 5.5-year period. To date, the
Service has reopened 31 of these post offices.

Figure 1: Emergencv Susnensions Since Fiscal Year 1992
  Number of post offices

  300 -




            1992           1993             1994      1995       1996         1997
                                                                           (9/M/96 -
                                                                           3/31/97)    ,
           Fiscal years (total of 651 suspensions)



Source-   Postal Servtce data

According to Service officials, the number of suspensions in fiscal year 1993 was high
primarily because the early out retirement incentive program the Service offered to its
employees in 1992 resulted in the retirement of a large number of postmasters early in
fiscal year 1993 (see fig. I). With the retirements, a number of post offices lost their
lease because the retiring postmaster also owned the building and/or qualified personnel
to operate the post office were not available. Therefore, the Service suspended
operations at these post offices.

Further, Service records show that the primary reason for 321 of these 651 post office
suspensions was that the post offices’ lease was lost or rental agreement termmated and
other suitable quarters were not available. In addition, operations at 114 of the 651 post
offices were suspended because damage to the post office building had rendered the


‘The Postal Servrce fiscal year 1997 began on September 14, 1996;thus the penod September 14,
1996,through March 31, 1997,equates to 6.5 months.
  Page4                                    GACMXiD-97-70X3   Emergency   Suspensions       of Post QfEce Operations
B-276778


facility unsuitable; 97, because the postmaster position was vacated and qualified
replacement personnel were not available; 72, because of the existence of a safely hazard
and other suitable quarters were not available; and 47, because of other reasons. Figure 2
shows the primary reasons for the 651 post office suspensions effected over the
approximate 55year period.


Figure 2: Reasons for Emergencs Suspensions Since Fiscal Year 1992

    Number of post office suspensions




               Lease         Damage               NO         Safety        Other
            termmatlon       to facility       personnel     hazard
           Reasons for 651 suspensions


Note: in the “other” category, 47 suspensions were for reasons such as the occurrence of a natural
disaster or secunty concerns about either the mall or postal employees.

Source: Postal Servlce data.



NUMBER OF POST OFFICES UNDER SUSPENSION AND LENGTH OF TIME
SUSPENSIONS HAVE BEEN IN EFFECT

As of March 31, 1997, there were 470 post offices under emergency suspension. The
operations of these post offices had been suspended for periods ranging from a few days
to over 10 years, the average time being 4.3 years. Figure 3 groups these 470 post offices
into four categorres that show the length of time their operations have been suspended.




  Page 5                                   GAO/GGD-9?-70R   Emergency   Suspensions   of Post Office   Operations
B-276778


Figure 3: Length of Time Suspensions Have Been in Effect for Post Offices Under
Suspension, as of March 31, 1997

  Number of post offices suspended

  300 -




               ear                More than 1 but      More than 5 but      More than
           0; less                less than or equal   less than or equal   10 years
                                  to 5 years           to 10 years

           Time 470 post off ices under suspension



Source:   GAO analysis of Postal Service data.


Service officials stated that 348 of the 470 post offices whose operations were suspended
as of March 31 were undergoing a study by their respective district offices to determine
the feasibility of permanently closing them. Of the remaining 122 post offices, the Service
had approved the district managers’ recommendations to permanently close 45, and was
reviewing the district managers’ recommendations to permanently close the remaining 77.

AGENCY COMMENTS

We requested comments on a draft of this letter from the U.S. Postal Service. We
obtained oral comments from the Postal Service Vice President, Retail, who was in
agreement with the facts contained in the letter. We also met with members of her staff
who suggested several technical changes to the letter, which we incorporated where
appropriate.

SCOPE AND METHODOLOGY

To determine the Postal Service process for suspending operations at post offices, we
reviewed the Postal Operations Manual and the Post Office Discontinuance Guide

  Page 6                                 GAWGGD-97-70R          Emergency   Suspensiorms Q-I?Post OfTice Qpenzdiorms
B-276778


(Handbook-lOl), and discussed the suspension process with appropriate Service officials
at Postal Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. To determine the number of post
office emergency suspensions since the beginning of fiscal year 1992, the reasons for
those suspensions, and the number of post offices currently under suspension, we
reviewed available records, including suspension notices and information from the
Service’s Post Office Discontinuance Tracking System, and discussed this information
with appropriate Service officials at headquarters. We did not verify the information
obtained from the tracking system. Also, we did not attempt to determine the number of
post offices whose operations were suspended before fiscal year 1992 because, according
to Service officials, information on suspensions prior to that time is not readily available
nor entirely complete.

We did our work at Postal Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., in March and April
1997 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.



We are sending copies of this letter to the Ranking Minority Member of your
Subcommittee; the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Subcommittee on
International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services, Senate Committee on
Governmental Affairs; the U.S. Postal Service; and other interested parties. We will also
make copies available to others on request.

Major contributors to this letter were Sherrill H. Johnson, Assistant Director, and David
W. Bennett, Evaluator. If you have any questions about the information in this letter,
please call me on (202) 512-8387.

Sincerely yours,




Associate Director, Government
  Business Operations Issues




(240243)
  Page 7                     GAO/GGD-97-70R   Emergency   Suspensions   of Post Office   Operations
Ordering      Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional   copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following  address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent     of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and Mastercard      credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted    25 percent.

Orders      by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 6015
Gaithersburg, MD 20884-6015

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner         of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting          Office
Washington,  DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (301) 258-4066, or TDD (301)         413-0006.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony.   To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any
list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information         on
how to obtaiu these lists.

For information         on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail         message with “info” in the body to:

info@www.gao.gov

or visit    GAO’s World     Wide Web Home Page at:

http&ww.gao.gov