By Bill McAllister, Washington Correspondent
When Postmaster General James Farley went to San Antonio in 1937 to dedicate the Texas city’s new post office and federal building, he used the event to plug stamp collecting.
“You’ll find it a lot of fun,” he told a crowd of 3,500. “And besides it helps the [Post Office] department.”
Today you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful post office in America than the six-story Beaux Arts building Farley dedicated across the street from the Alamo.
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Yet if you go into the post office and buy a stamp — as Farley urged 79 years ago — you are in for an ordeal.
Just to get into the post office’s ornate lobby, you have to go through a security review that surpasses what I have experienced in most federal buildings in Washington or even Dulles International Airport.
I had to take off my belt, remove everything in my pockets — “Yes, everything,” the guards will tell you before you pass through a metal detector.
The ground-level post office has two sets of glass doors opening directly on to Houston Street in the heart of the city’s business district, but they both were locked.
The building’s security was clearly aimed at people who would be using the elevators to go upstairs to the federal courts or other federal offices.
That function could be continued without threatening the security of the courts and other federal agencies upstairs.
I’m all for security of federal buildings, but I’m also troubled about the future of the United States Postal Service. It needs customers to survive. Lots of them.
As Ruth Y. Goldway, former chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, once said, “… limiting access and declines in service create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The USPS is suffering from both problems: a shrinking number of postal facilities and declining service.
This once charming post office in the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse illustrates how the government’s own rules are harming the Postal Service.
When I asked the USPS to explain why a post office in a major city should be placed behind such formidable security, I was informed that the General Services Administration, the federal government’s landlord, controlled the building.
“Building security has been established by the GSA and the Postal Service does not have the authority to change it,” said spokesman David Partenheimer.
USPS employees have to carry access badges issued by the GSA, and “non-employees” must pass through “security guard screening,” he said.
"Non-employees" appears to be how the GSA views postal customers.
“Regarding the other set of doors referenced in the inquiry, the Postal Service is not permitted to utilize those doors, due to the security guidelines put in place by GSA,” Partenheimer told Linn’s, citing information from his field office in Texas.
When asked if the USPS had protested these rules, Partenheimer allowed that postal officials had been so troubled by them that they had proposed closing the post office in 2011.
“However, there was strong community opposition to closing this office, so we downsized the operation while maintaining a Post Office presence,” he said.
The USPS has received “very few, if any complaints related to the security process for entry from our customers at this location,” he said.
If postal officials want confirmation of how the public is treating this security, they need only check the emptiness of the postal lobby or one of the websites that reviews businesses, such as Yelp.
There they’ll discover customers are voting with their feet, going elsewhere for stamps and post services.
The sales windows are open only four days a week, Monday through Thursday.
“For postal customer convenience in the Downtown San Antonio area, we expanded access to postal products and services with several nearby retail outlets selling stamps at face value and with a Contract Postal Unit located in the Frost Bank Tower Building, 100 W. Sam Houston St., Suite 100, about five blocks west of the Downtown Station Post Office,” Partenheimer said.
Charlie Cook, a GSA spokesman, said rules for the San Antonio building are set by a committee composed of its tenants. If the USPS wants a change, it’s up to the USPS to file a request, he said.
If James Farley were still alive, I can only guess what he would think of the government making it so difficult to buy stamps.