Fuzzy facts surround fusing postal operations

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Opponents of Tupelo’s mail processing consolidation predict dire consequences if it’s approved, but little information is available to support or refute their claims.
What data is provided reveals discrepancies in how the U.S. Postal Service reports post-consolidation results. That makes it hard to determine whether consolidations work, and if so, to what extent.
In one case examined by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Postal Service’s cost-savings estimates were off by millions of dollars. In another, service downgrades weren’t reported at all.
But if most USPS data is legitimate, mail-processing consolidations have little negative impact on the affected communities or on customer service. And they save the USPS tens of millions of dollars a year.
Since 2006, the USPS has consolidated 13 of its 268 mail processing facilities nationwide. Nineteen more consolidations have been approved, and 30 more are being considered. Tupelo is among this last group.
The USPS wants to move Tupelo’s outgoing mail processing operations 105 miles to Memphis. There, mail would be postmarked, sorted and shipped for distribution. Currently, those operations happen in-house and involve all mail with 388- ZIP codes.
According to a USPS study, the move would save the federal agency $181,000 a year and require the shuffling or transfer of six employees. Tupelo would lose its postmark – unless customers specifically request it at the post office counter – but mail delivery and customer service would remain the same, the study concludes.
Officials haven’t said when they’ll make a final decision, but it could happen within a matter of months.
Postal workers generally oppose the consolidation. They argue that service standards would decline and mail would arrive days late. They also questioned the USPS figures, calling the estimated cost savings arbitrary and unlikely.
Not true, said USPS spokeswoman Beth Barnett, explaining that the numbers are carefully crunched and reflect accurate estimates. When asked to see the background data used to arrive at those numbers, though, Barnett said it’s proprietary information and not subject to public inspection.
That lack of transparency is a recurring theme in independent reviews of the consolidation process. Both the GAO and the Office of the Inspector General have criticized the USPS for providing lackluster data to stakeholders.
They also suggest it’s responsible for blocking what could have been successful consolidations.
Of the consolidations that have been approved and implemented, the results sometimes are hard to discern.
From a 2007 GAO report: “In addition to the lack of clarity in the facility selection process, USPS does not use consistent data calculations in determining impacts and savings of these consolidations, resulting in the potential for foreseeable impacts to go unnoticed and inconsistency in anticipated savings.”
Whatever the actual savings, it’s clear that consolidations do reduce cost for the USPS. The same 2007 GAO report found that the combined consolidations of nine mail-processing operations saved either $19 million or $28.1 million annually, depending on who you believe.
Local mail officials reported smaller savings in their reports, which were then revised by the USPS headquarters to reflect the higher numbers. It’s not clear who was right, but the higher figure matches almost dollar-for-dollar the total savings estimate provided in the pre-consolidation studies.
Customer service and mail delivery outcomes also are hard to discern, according to the GAO. But OIG reviews of two recent consolidations are more concise.

Business improved
According to one review, nearly every aspect of the business improved after outgoing mail-processing went from Canton, Ohio, 20 miles away to Akron, Ohio.
Since consolidating in April last year, delivery scores increased, productivity increased and customer satisfaction stayed within normal range. The USPS will save about $2.3 million a year due to the change, the OIG said.
The USPS shaved 38 positions from Canton by eliminating 27 temporary employees, shifting five to different jobs in Canton and transferring six to other local facilities. Other employees retired, and one resigned.
Before the consolidation, Canton city officials largely opposed the move. But since then, it’s been quiet, said Canton city spokesman Adam Herman.
“We have not received any vocal outcry following the consolidation,” Herman said. “No calls about impacts on service.”
Another consolidation, that of Marina Del Rey, Calif., to Los Angeles, resulted in “reduced work hours, considerable cost savings … and improved productivity,” according to the OIG. “Additionally, according to management, they accomplished work hour reductions without any involuntary employee separations and no grievances were filed … .”
More than 1,000 workers were affected in the move.
But mail delays skyrocketed. In the month before consolidation – June 2005 – nearly 8 million pieces of mail were late. One month later, the number topped 21 million, the OIG said. It added that those figures have improved significantly since then.
While these reports provide Tupelo a glimpse of its potential future, it’s no apples-to-apples comparison.
For one thing, the average distance between facilities involved in the past five years’ worth of USPS consolidations is 30 miles, with the greatest being about 60.
Tupelo’s outgoing mail would travel 105 miles if shipped to Memphis.
And most consolidations have occurred within the same state, while Tupelo’s would go from Mississippi to Tennessee.
A previous exception was Kansas City, Kansas, whose outgoing mail processing operations moved three miles east to Kansas City, Mo.
“If it affected the service, I haven’t heard anything negative, but we’re on the Missouri side,” said Dennis Taff, an American Postal Workers Union employee based in the St. Louis branch.
Taff said the farther the facilities, the worse the service. He recalled a consolidation “umpteen years ago” where mail processing moved 115 miles from Fort Smith, Ark., to Tulsa, Okla.
“People who had been getting mail in one day were getting them in two days,” he said. “I know that for a fact because I worked in the Fort Smith plant at the time. That was one of the first ones done.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.