Threatened Virginia post office grossed $260K in a year

Updated October 24. See note at end. – D.R.

imageA threatened post office near Sen. John McCain’s old prep school grossed almost $260,000 in Fiscal Year 2010. Nice profit opportunity for the Postal Service? The tiny branch even receives free space from Virginia Theological Seminary, the  major user.

Terri Huff, the popular postmistress at the Seminary branch in Alexandria, VA, which might have served the Senator when he was a student at Episcopal High School, is the branch’s only employee.

So the question is, “Why?”  Read this postal document and see some of the key numbers for yourself.

If the Postal Service shut down Seminary, it would still have to pay Terri’s salary if she worked for the service elsewhere, as the document says she would. And—given the superior service she has provided, as well as the long lines and already-challenging parking at the Parkfairfax branch—more customers might be inclined to forsake the postal for the virtual. The change just might cost the Postal Service some of the money it’s raking in now. Hello, D.C.? Don’t we want to reduce the postal deficit? If nothing else, how about history and tradition? The white wooden building probably dates back to the 19th century.

The good new is that the closing isn’t absolutely definite, according to Dennis Voorhees, a postal official quoted on WTOP. I truly hope the Postal Service will change its mind.  Among other things, the service claims the new arrangements would save $654,123 over ten years. Huh? The only major expenses are for Terri’s salary, the time of her supervisor, and costs associated with picking up the mail. Because she would be working elsewhere and likewise supervised, we’re not talking about the biggest of savings even if there are some—at least compared to the extra time that members of the near-by community would need to devote to postal matters. Keep in mind the inspection requirements for packages. People need to drop off packages in person. And that could mean Parking Hell at the Bradlee Shopping Center housing the Parkfairfax branch.

In another argument, the Postal Service cites a decline in walk-in revenue. But see if the following revenue totals for the Seminary  establish a long-term trend: FY ‘07: $268,723. FY ‘08: $281,004.  FT ‘09: $288,869. FY ‘10: $259,801. Perhaps with the Internet, usage will decline over the years. But it apparently would have to fall a long way for the branch to cease being profitable and not justify the time-savings it provides the public.

The Postal Service also talks about the lack of tight security arrangements in the historic building. But would a replacement building, or beefed-up security for Seminary, cost enough to justify the changes the Postal Service has in mind? The historic post office is the size of a few tool sheds bunched together.

In an article apparently based partly on a generic press release, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is quoted as saying that private businesses could handle matters at the retail level; but I’d point out that no stores are within perhaps a road mile of the Seminary branch.

Maybe the service can justify the closure with some startling information or surprise insights. But to me, it’s a bad move, both fiscally and in terms of customer service. If nothing else, perhaps the postal people can rethink the baffling language in the document: “Taking all available information into account, the Postal Service concludes this proposal will provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal service to the community.”

A decision is expected at some point after November 21, and although the official deadline for comment has passed, you should still try sending your sentiments to the Post Office Review Coordinator, P.O. Box 3603, Winchester, VA 22604. Here a link to a copy of the official complaint form.

I might have more on this topic next week. For now, the Postal Service should know that Terri did not turn the document over to me until I specifically asked for it, and that I’m a customer of the branch and thus should qualify to see the information (so please don’t get Teri in trouble!).

Given the small print in the document and the elderly customers affected in the community near the seminary, I don’t think the Postal Service was very accommodating here even though I’m grateful that it at least made public the pros and cons (all the postal document would be covered by the Freedom of Information Act, what’s more). The basic closing information was on a bulletin board near the service window, but easy to overlook.

Posting the specifics online, so I wouldn’t have had to scan them into my Web site,  would have helped; the Post Office could have shared the document’s Web address through the Seminary Hill Civic Association, which, of course, opposes the closing.

If the Post Service really thinks the masses are giving up on postal mail—despite the need for delivery of goods ordered online and for other Net-proof purposes—why the devil wasn’t the full story on the Web so that wired postal customers could knowledgeably complain without having to squint at the small print?

For now, I’m more curious than ever about justifications for closures elsewhere. If any other readers of this blog face postal closures, they should ask for full documentation. If the Postal Service can go after a tiny post office with $260K in revenue and minimal expenses, then just what postal branches are safe?

Update, October 24: I caught up today  with a helpful Dennis Voorhees. He says the decision will be made by the office of the vice president for postal  operations in Washington, D.C., and that the big criterion will in fact be whether the change will make service more “effective” (as in reliable and comprehensive), not just cost alone.

That still leaves me mystified since the Seminary and neighborhood residents feel that a closure would not accomplish this in ways most meaningful to people around here.

He also mentions nearby alternatives such as the Parkfairfax (1.1 miles) and Trade Center (2.9 miles) branches. But he does say they are not as convenient to people living extremely close to the Seminary branch. Nor—as I would point out—even in my location a mile away on Howard Street.  And of course there are the waiting-line and parking issues at Parkfairfax. And waiting-line ones at Trade Center.  Especially during holidays. Not always, but so often, the service’s five-minute waiting goal is just a dream, and closing Seminary would make it harder to realize.

By far, Seminary is the fastest branch for me to use when it’s open (9 through 3 on weekdays except for a half hour lunch break for Terri, and 9 to 1 on Saturdays), and when it is not, I can go elsewhere. Just how would the closing help people like me in a major way?

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David Rothman

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