FIFTH STREET — Santa Monicans will no longer be able to drop off packages, check their P.O. boxes and buy stamps at the historic Fifth Street post office under a plan by federal officials to save money by consolidating and restructuring the U.S. Postal Service.
Under the plan, which officials said has yet to be finalized, postal customers, including roughly 2,220 who have P.O. boxes, would have to travel less than a mile away to a mail carrier annex facility on the corner of Seventh Street and Olympic Boulevard, which currently handles large mailings by real estate agents and other businesses. The New Deal-era building on Fifth Street, which began serving the public in 1934, would most likely be sold.
That would leave Santa Monicans with three postal locations in the city — one on Seventh Street, the Will Rogers Station on Wilshire Boulevard and the Ocean Park Station on Neilson Way. Mail delivery to homes and businesses would not be impacted, said Richard Maher, a spokesman for the Postal Service.
“We are looking at all facilities nationwide to see where there are opportunities to consolidate operations or to relocate,” Maher said.
An historic post office in Venice, Calif. is on the chopping block as well, with the Postal Service asking for $7.5 million.
In addition to closures and consolidation, there are also talks of cutting out Saturday deliveries and reducing hours at post offices.
Reason for being in the red
The Postal Service is dealing with significant losses — more than $25 billion over the last five years as more people move away from “snail mail” and do most of their communication via the Internet. The recession didn’t help, nor did a mandate passed by Congress in 2006 that the Postal Service pre-pay health benefits for future retirees for the next 75 years, and do so within the next 10 years at a cost of $5.5 billion annually.
Postal workers are pushing for that mandate — part of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act — to be abolished or altered so that the healthcare costs are paid for by a pension surplus instead of coming from the Postal Service’s operating budget. Doing that would dramatically improve the Postal Service’s bottom line, saving thousands of jobs and post offices from being closed. It would also free up cash to invest in capital improvements or new technologies to make the Postal Service more competitive, postal employees said.
“It’s not all about the Internet,” said Steve Hutkins, a professor of literature at New York University who also runs the website savethepostoffice.com, a resource for those fighting to save their local branches. “The Postal Service got hit hard by this mandate passed by Congress. … That’s been the main problem.”
Maher said the mandate to pre-pay has hurt, but eliminating it would not solve the Postal Service’s financial woes.
“We still face declining volumes of first-class mail,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Package volume has been increasing, but not enough to offset these losses. We are not tax-dollar subsidized, so as volume drops, our revenue drops.”
The possible impact
Closing or consolidating post offices would present a significant hardship for some, mainly those living in rural areas, the elderly or disabled and the poor, who may not have access to the Internet and rely on post offices for things like money orders to pay their rent, critics of the plan said. There are also those who chose to vote by mail because it is more convenient or they are unable to get to a polling place. In some areas the only place to vote is at the post office. What would happen to them?
“The Postal Service is not as important to urban America as it used to be and the people who depend on it, those in rural or poor areas, are not as organized to speak for themselves,” said Ruth Goldway, chair of the Postal Regulatory Commission since 2009 and a former mayor of Santa Monica who believes the Fifth Street branch should remain open and the historic building preserved.
“You could disenfranchise whole swaths of the nation if you don’t have the Postal Service function,” Goldway said. “It’s important to keep it going, but we don’t have a clear path of how to fix it at the moment.”
If his post office were to close, Hutkins said he would miss the sense of community that comes with visiting it daily to pick up mail. He lives in a small town in the Hudson River Valley where there is no home delivery — just a restaurant and a small hotel.
“There’s not much there,” he said. “[The post office] is an important place in town. It’s where you bump into your neighbors. … It kind of becomes a community center, especially for older people who get attached to a post office. They like knowing that they can walk to their post office. If it’s gone, they are worried that they may have to drive eight miles in the middle of winter to pick up their mail.”
There is currently a moratorium on post office closures that will expire in May. At that time Congress and the Postal Service are expected to have a showdown over plans to balance the agency’s budget. There are lawmakers who are trying to repeal the pre-pay mandate, while others are not convinced the consolidation and closure proposals made by the Postal Service make economic sense.
Maher said an internal study has been completed on the financial benefits of consolidating in Santa Monica but would not release that information. He said it was irrelevant, anyway. Some offices that make money may be closed while others that lose money could remain open because of the obligation to provide service to every community.
“We have to look at the bigger picture,” Maher said. “In order to provide service to every community in the country there will be facilities that may be consolidated that are actually operating at a profit, but for the good of the entire system, they will be consolidated.”
Inside the operation
Maher’s point may be the case for Santa Monica. A postal worker with over 10 years experience in Santa Monica said the Fifth Street branch is constantly busy. He’s certain it is profitable, perhaps to the tune of $2 million, although that figure cannot be confirmed.
“The place is a mad house at times,” said the postal employee, who did not want his name printed out of fear of losing his job.
He advocated for the two smaller retail locations in Santa Monica to be shuttered instead of the Fifth Street location. If it is closed and services consolidated at the annex on Seventh Street, the employee believes customers will be negatively impacted as the facility is already heavily-used by businesses doing mass mailings and is not set up for retail sales.
“I believe people will be upset,” he said. “I already see it when people come into the office and see three people at the window and a line of 18 people waiting. … It will be disastrous.”
Maher said if the consolidation takes place, the Seventh Street facility would have to be remodeled to make room for more customers. He said the public will soon be able to weigh in on the issue, however, critics of the plan said it is already a done deal, citing a letter postal employees in Santa Monica received informing them of the transfer to Seventh Street.
“I would strongly advise the citizens of Santa Monica who are concerned to work with their federal, state and local legislators and the business community, which relies on this post office, and get the information out and get people involved,” Goldway said.
Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who represents Santa Monica, said he is interested in learning more about the plan.
“It is my expectation that the Postal Service will conduct a full and transparent public process as this evaluation moves forward,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The commission Goldway oversees has very little room to maneuver when it comes to consolidation or relocation of post offices. If postal service in a community were to be reduced significantly, the commission could call for a review to determine if the move is necessary. When it comes to relocation or consolidation, as in Santa Monica’s case, the majority of commissioners have sided with the Postal Service.
“Very few appeals have been successful,” she said. “If you have a good attorney to look at the law and point out procedural problems, that’s been able to turn a few around.”
Goldway hopes level heads prevail come May and another plan to solve the fiscal problems is devised that doesn’t reduce service. Although, she isn’t too optimistic given the political climate in Washington D.C. where deficits are driving harsh rhetoric and repeated calls for cuts and privatization.
At least one Santa Monica resident isn’t going to let the Fifth Street office close without a fight. Susan Reichmann has set up an e-mail address — firstname.lastname@example.org — in an effort to organize opposition. She not only wants the building preserved, but wants the post office to continue operating there.
“It feels like it is a vital part of our city’s culture,” she said. “I have been around for over 50 years and the post office has been there, without fail, every day of my life, well, except Sundays. … I’m reaching out because I feel like nobody knows this is happening. It seems like this process is happening behind the scenes.”