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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

No cancellation: Tucson's Cherrybell mail center gets approval stamp from Postal Service bill

Congress just passed with — yes, you're reading this right — huge bipartisan margins a plan that dials back an existential threat to the U.S. Postal Service. And that improves the odds that the post office’s Cherrybell mail processing station in Tucson will stay open after all.

The Tucson postal operation has been defying death for so long, it should be a Marvel franchise.

It's been in trouble because the postal system overall has been in trouble.

The Postal Service has for decades been facing stiff competition from the private sector for certain deliveries. First-class deliveries are declining and labor costs are climbing.

Plus, the entire enterprise has been strangled for 15 years with a ridiculous requirement to fully pre-fund its pension system for years ahead of time — a requirement, faced by no other federal agency, that made no sense in 2006 and makes even less now.

Whip it all together in a creamy froth and something had to give. USPS started looking for costs to cut and Tucson landed on the target list.

The Postal Service has had a slow-burning plan to shut down Tucson’s Processing and Distribution Center at 1600 S. Cherrybell Stra. The idea has been to move it to Phoenix.

The Cherrybell Station processes about 2 million-ish pieces of mail per year.

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Closing it would have affected 326 Tucson jobs (depending on whom you talk to), slowed down mail deliveries and led to higher bulk rates.

The USPS, as a whole, would save $14 million by consolidating operations in Phoenix.

Presumably the move would mean more jobs and faster deliveries for Phoenix, which would also be saved from higher bulk rates.

Tucson has lost some jobs to Phoenix and our postmark disappeared back in 2013. Yeah. We just disappeared.

Congress’ action makes it more likely that those envelopes and packages will still be processed in Tucson, and may bring back some of what's been lost, said Tucson City Councilman Richard Fimbres. 

“This is a major victory in our 11-year battle to keep the Cherrybell Post Office and Processing Center open and functioning, serving 1.5 million people, the two tribes, seniors, veterans, small businesses and other companies in Tucson and Southern Arizona,” Fimbres said. “The stronger financial footing for the (postal service) provides us the opportunity to restore services that were previously consolidated in Phoenix, including local sorting and bringing back the Tucson postmark."

Set for closure

The station has been slated for more than 10 years.

The first public hearing on closing it down was held Dec. 28, 2011.

Government rarely schedules public hearings during the week between Christmas and New Year's because it’s inconvenient for many people who would like to show up to discuss the topic at hand. Local leaders asked the postal service to move the date. Not only did they refuse to do that, they held the meeting at the Tucson Convention Center and refused to ask that parking fees be waived.

This is how bureaucrats tell the public to stay the hell away from the public hearing the law forces them to have but they find wildly inconvenient. Bureaucrats who do that, are not public servants. They are bureaucrats.

The processing center was included in the first phase of consolidations, slated for January 2015.

Cherrybell has remained open near as I can tell because Arizona’s congressional representatives have managed to block the action.

Shuttering post offices makes for the worst kind of politics. It’s a meat and potatoes issue that doesn’t invoke partisan bloody shirts.

Why can't I get my mail? When is it going to get better? It's not the kind of question that's easy to dodge by blaming undocumented migrants or George Soros. It's terrible politics when the losers know they lost and can tell you why.

House speakers don’t want their Gabrielle Giffordses or Martha McSallys to run while losing a major federal-ish service in their front-line swing districts. A guy like U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, gaining seniority during 10 terms in office, can find ways to keep it open, too.

I remember when the Department of Homeland Security wanted to create a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 19. U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe wanted to keep checkpoints mobile. Kolbe always won because he sat on the Appropriations Committee and just wrote the mobile-checkpoint language into the DHS appropriations package.

Even though the Republicans in Congress blocked any changes for more than a decade, and the Democrats couldn't muster enough oomph for a fix until now, there was a local bipartisan consensus that Cherrybell should stay open. McSally, Ron Barber, Grijalva, Fimbres, Jonathan Rothschild — they all made cases to sorting Tucson's mail here in Tucson, and not routing a letter from Douglas to Nogales through Phoenix.

Backstory

Perhaps you are like me and assumed that the U.S. Postal Service, like many other public pension systems, had grown dangerously underfunded and required some tough love to get their house in order and whatever other public sector cliché applies.

Turns out, no. Not really.

In fact, the Postal Service’s pension problem was what to do with all the excess money. Yeah, turns out, it was over-funded by as much as $75 billion.

Windfall! What does the USPS actually do with the money?

Well, here is where the Postal Service, regardless of what anyone may think, does not run like a business. Like FedEx, UPS and Amazon, the Postal Service runs off its own revenue. 

The competition responds to the market. The Postal Service must respond to the whimsy of U.S. Congress and White House – no matter how nutty the idea disguised as “horse sense.”

In 2003, Congress was annoying but not crazy. Republicans insisted the Postal Service pay off debt owed to the U.S. Treasury for standard-issue capital expenses. Fine. Whatever.

In 2006, Congress was readying new dictates when the Bush Administration’s Office of Management and Budget insisted the Postal Service’s pension plan be deficit neutral.

That makes no sense. The federal budget operates on a 10-year cycle and nine of them are for show. Pension plans operate under much longer time horizons. The Postal Service’s office of Inspector General then was pushing for 30 years. The Senate was cool with 40 years. The White House jumped in during the last days of negotiations and insisted on the 10-year plan.

That is how we got the current mess. It wasn’t some sort of nefarious plot. It was plain short-sighted ignorance.

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For proof, I offer U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. He led the charge to repeal the pension requirement and shore up the postal service. It was his job to tell Republicans that Bush’s dumbass OMB chief got it wrong 15 years ago. Portman’s job was made easier because Bush’s dumbass OMB chief 15 years ago went by the name Rob Portman.

Yeah. The same guy who damn-near broke the Postal Service in 2006, is leading the fight to undo the damage in 2022.

Portman is one of a handful of Republicans trying to buy back his soul from the Devil who lent it to Trump.

The postal crunch – by many accounts – was felt more in rural Red America than by woke urban densities. So Portman made it easy for Republicans to vote for the 2022 bill because he could say “I got it wrong” and let his colleagues respond to constituent concerns.

That’s how you get a 342-92 majority in the House and a 79-19 vote in the Senate.

Good for him. He cleaned up his mess.

Also, I just think that Trump's fixation on destroying the post office has run into the Trumpenfreunde that does exist in some of the saner parts of the GOP. 

They look for little ways to give Old 45 the political bird.

The 2006 Postal System Accountability and Enhancement Act is also a warning of what can happen when politicians rush. They’d been working on the plan for two years and were hustling to pass it in the lame duck days of the 109th Congress. It was passed after Republicans lost the November midterms but before Democrats took control in January 2007.

I've seen this in the Arizona Legislature. Congress just wanted to get the bill done and if they had to allow some accounting gimmickry to get the bill signed into law, then fine. Do it. Get it over with. 

They play with live ammo in the Beltway. So a butterfly flutters its wings on Pennsylvania Avenue and a postal center is on life support on South Cherrybell.

A doorstep miracle

Think about what the post office does. You put a stamp on an envelope. Walk to your own personal mailbox. Drop the letter inside. Presto, it reaches its destination in a few days. 

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Repeat the process 167.3 million times a day.

Even late-arriving packages are proof of what a job the Postal Service does most of the time.

The mail's biggest problem has been politicians with agendas wounding it, and still demanding it to keep sprinting against the competition. In fact, USPS needs to do more, and do it better, than its profit-making competitors. The post office (which is one of the few federal agencies specified in the U.S. Constitution) has a mandate to serve every address in the country, no matter how remote. That's why private shippers often use USPS for last-mile delivery to your doorstep.

Ben Franklin, the nation's first Postmaster General, gave our republic a logistical miracle. Let's see if we can keep it.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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The U.S. Postal Service just got a congressional reprieve that could save Tucson's Cherrybell Processing and Distribution Center from a decade-old death sentence.

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