You’ve heard the old adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” When it comes to delayed and missing mail in the Roanoke region, Katie James of Hollins is the wheel.
She wrote me in February about missing bills and undelivered letters to the home she shares with her husband, Bill. One was a check from a neighbor who lives about a block away. That took 69 days to arrive.
I outlined James’ complaint in a Feb. 28 column; it prompted a flood of other reader tales about missing and delayed mail — and many more columns. One of them concerned a blood sample from a Roanoke woman on a transplant waiting list that never made it to a Charlottesville hospital. The complaints still are rolling in.
On Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, announced a federal audit into whether mail woes in this region are the result of efforts to merge Roanoke’s mail processing and distribution center into one in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General will send a team to Roanoke to investigate our mail service and to ascertain whether a “business case” exists to complete the consolidation, which began in April 2015 but later was indefinitely suspended.
James told me Thursday she never imagined her brief email back in February would end up sparking a federal investigation.
“I think it’s great they’re investigating; I think they need to investigate it,” she said. She said she’s switched to paying online as much as possible, but she’s “still having some trouble.”
Agapi Doulaveris, a spokeswoman for the postal service’s inspector general, offered scant details about what is coming. Her office is still in the process of planning the audit, which will involve a team of employees and will take about six months, she said.
But the news was welcomed by Carlton Cooper, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 486, which represents about 300 workers in the Roanoke Valley.
He said: “We are totally behind the audit, because we want the public to know how badly the postal service has lied to them” about cost savings and other aspects of the Greensboro consolidation.
Cooper noted that one of the few changes since the consolidation began is that first-class mail originating in Roanoke is trucked to Greensboro to be postmarked. Those letters destined for Roanoke addresses are then trucked back to Roanoke and processed here for delivery.
“What sense does it make to truck Roanoke-bound mail to Greensboro to have it postmarked and trucked back to Roanoke for processing?” Cooper asked. “We’re paying money [to trucking companies] to delay the mail. That’s what’s going on.
He added: “It’s destroying the postal service because of what the bean counters dreamed up on how to save money. Well, we’re not saving any money.”
Susan Wright, a postal service spokeswoman in Lexington, Kentucky, initially confirmed in an email that crosstown mail is indeed being trucked to Greensboro, postmarked, then trucked back to Roanoke for processing. I asked her why, twice.
The first time she didn’t answer. The second time, she qualified her earlier confirmation.
“Mail collected in Roanoke and surrounding areas is sent to the Greensboro plant for cancellation and primary sort ‘to the world,’ meaning all destination addresses. Mail for Roanoke is then returned to Roanoke for sortation to the final carrier or delivery unit level.”
Cooper said: “That’s the way it’s supposed to happen.”
But some of the mail that’s coming back from Greensboro has neither been postmarked nor sorted. It’s been sitting down there for “we don’t know how many days,” he said.
“We get mail back from Greensboro that has not ever had the primary cull. Some of it hasn’t been cancelled,” he added. “Some of it is destined for places like California, New Mexico and New York.”
The primary sort for those letters may happen in Roanoke — “or it may get put back on a truck and sent back to Greensboro,” he said.
Cooper also told me three officials from the postal service’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., showed up Thursday in Roanoke for a meeting with Roanoke Postmaster Ed Schaben. (Postal Service regulations bar him from speaking to the media.) Providentially, the person they asked for directions to Schaben’s office was Cooper.
Why were those bigwigs here? Did it have anything to do with the upcoming audit? I asked Wright those questions.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on internal meetings between postal personnel,” she replied.
Whether the audit will have a significant effect on mail service here or on the Roanoke-Greensboro consolidation is anyone’s guess.
A similar review the inspector general conducted last fall on consolidation of the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan, processing centers found the merger resulted in minor increases in delayed mail and a small decline in customer service.
Nevertheless, that 25-page report supported the merger and found that a “business case” for it existed, because it would save the financially strapped postal service $7 million annually.
The necessity to trim costs is real. But more than anything else, that pressure was driven by an insane law Congress passed in 2006 that raided postal service revenues to the tune of $5.5 billion a year. The agency, which is not subsidized by taxpayers, has been shedding workers and consolidating distribution centers ever since.
And the result is, mail customers all over the country are airing postal grievances.
In recent months, I’ve collected news articles about similar complaints in Phoenix, Arizona; Columbus, Ohio; Decatur, Georgia; the San Francisco Bay area in California; Richmond, Chesapeake and Chesterfield County, Virginia; Midlothian and College Station, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; Chevy Chase, Maryland; and Fargo, North Dakota.
It’s no stretch to conclude that the U.S. Postal Service is slowly being killed. The bigger question is, why isn’t Congress doing something about that?