Postal Updates

North Dakota: the Postal Service's 'perfect storm'

Apr 4, 2015, 2 PM

Of all things facing new Postmaster General Megan Brennan, one of the most vexing has to be North Dakota.

For decades, the state has been a postmaster's delight: low growth, small population changes. It was a state that a postmaster general could set on automatic and never have a worry.

But recently an oil boom has hit the western section of the state. Good times, like North Dakota had never seen, hit the state.

And the United States Postal Service, which had no plan for dealing with growth there, has felt the pain.

Population in the Peace Garden state has grown by 7.6 percent since 2010, compared to 2.4 nationally. Mail delivery points have climbed by 14 percent and packages by 165 percent in the past four years.

While a decline in oil prices has slowed the growth, Postmaster General Brennan is left with a state that needs something the USPS doesn't have much of these days: cash. Cash for adding more workers, paying them more overtime and adding more retail facilities.

How Brennan decides to confront North Dakota's growth problems at a time when most USPS operations are facing continuing declines in volume is only one of the small issues on her plate.

The big issues remain. Brennan must get a reluctant Congress to address her agency's underlying financial troubles.

A March 31 report by the Postal Service's Inspector General makes clear that, while the agency has made some progress toward improving mail service in North Dakota, many basic improvements are still needed.

Specifically, the report said that the Postal Service did not always process, deliver and transport the mail in North Dakota in a timely manner.

The USPS also lacked "sufficient retail windows" to meet demand, and "box-up times" — when mail is promised to be in post office boxes — are often incorrect, the IG report said.

It is all counter to what is happening in most states where overall mail volume has plummeted and where the USPS has been making plans to consolidate facilities to cope with the declines.

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In Washington, Brennan is also confronted by another serious problem. It's what one former postal executive calls "the perfect storm" — a problem highlights the fractured relations between the USPS and its regulator.

An impasse over what should have been a routine price increase escalated after the Postal Regulatory Commission refused to rubber-stamp planned increases for advertising mail, periodicals and package services.

The retirements of several key employees in the USPS rates office led to the filing of price increase plans that the commission staff found "riddled with errors," according to the former postal executive. In turn, the USPS had to delay its planned April 26 rates changes for all classes of mail.

A USPS statement suggested that the mistakes are correctable, but the fact is that filings have provided the PRC's acting chairman Robert Taub with a new argument for the commission's role in keeping postal rates in check.

In North Dakota, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is pressing her "Fix my Mail" initiative begun in 2014.

She is charging that the USPS is "going back on its promise" to improve mail service in the state.

Which ever way the nation's 74th postmaster general turns these days, the Postal Service needs help.