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August 19th, 2020:

Postal service update

Just a reminder, destroying the US Postal Service has real effects on real people.

Delays in mail sorting and processing are leaving Houston-area businesses, brides and voters wary of the coming months. Whether it’s essential medication, ballots or important letters and business items, the USPS is relied upon to deliver in a timely manner. Yet, many Houstonians are already feeling the effects of the slowdown, including month-long wait times and undelivered mail.

Melissa Palacios Gonzalez, a U.S. Navy veteran, runs an accessories and clothing shop out of her home in Spring. When customers place online orders of jewelry or sunglasses, shimmery metallic sandals or distressed baseball caps from Aesthetic Glam, Palacios Gonzalez drops them off at the U.S. post office nearby.

But over the summer, she and other Houstonians noticed shipping delays as first the coronavirus strained delivery times, then systemic cutbacks by the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, reduced the USPS’s delivery capacity.

A USPS Priority Mail order of flip flops, which was supposed to be delivered in one or two days, took a week to reach its destination, Palacios Gonzalez said.

“If it becomes a routine problem —” she started to explain, then stopped and sighed. “Even if I say, ‘Oh, sorry that happened, here’s a percentage savings on me,’ I’m still potentially losing money and a customer.”

[…]

Due to delays in the U.S. Postal Service, Adrienne Lynch’s baby’s clothes often come weeks late.

The East Sunset Heights resident said her 20-month-old daughter is growing so fast, she often has to order new clothes. Care packages from the toddler’s grandmother also normally come much later than originally estimated by the post office.

Lynch’s mail service is in constant flux, she said. Some weeks, she notices deliveries every day. Other weeks, the household won’t receive mail for a few days.

Lynch first noticed the delays in March and April. They have continued and worsened since then, she said.

“Sometimes our outgoing mail may not be picked up for a day or so,” she said. “Or on the package tracking, you will see that your package is out for delivery, but it’s sent back to the post office at the end of the day because the carrier’s shift is over and they can’t do overtime.”

Uju Nwankwo, 27, sent about 100 to 130 wedding save-the-dates through the mail on July 19 for her February wedding. Almost a month later, many of her Houston friends have yet to receive the letters.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason, so I don’t really get it,” Nwankwo said of the sporadic deliveries.

When the soon-to-be bride contacted USPS, she said she was told her area was experiencing sorting delays. Now, with no way to track her letters, Nwankwo just has to wait it out.

Neither Nwankwo nor Lynch blame postal workers for the delays.

Carriers have a “really tough job” in worsening conditions, Lynch said. She’s started leaving bottles of water and thank you notes in the shade for postal workers to show her appreciation for their work.

“I think the delays we are experiencing locally are directly related to the system,” Lynch said. “Postal workers and their union want to serve the country, but their hands are tied.”

See here and here for some background. The potential consequences for some folks can be quite serious.

Operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service are causing delays in mail deliveries all over the country. A man in Humble said he had to go without his daily heart medication for a week due to the delays.

Don White, 82, said he has been tracking the package and said it remained at a north Houston mail processing facility for 10 days. He’s hoping to get in on Monday.

He said he’s irritated by the situation because his mail-order medication has never been this late before.

“There have been a few times in which it’s taken a week, week and a half, two weeks, but this is the first time I actually ran out and checking with the post office didn’t do much good, even though I had a tracking number on it,” White said.

He said in the meantime, his daughter has helped him get the medication at a local grocery store pharmacy.

Lucky for him he has someone nearby who can help him like that. Not everyone would be so fortunate.

There are lawsuits.

Let the Postal Service lawsuits begin. There are plenty of plaintiffs, including states. At least 20 state attorneys general are going to court over U.S. Postal Service delays and the threat to the November election, The Washington Post reports. “We’re trying to stop Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service, which we believe to be an attack on the integrity of election. It’s a straight-up attack on democracy,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, said in an interview. “This conduct is illegal. It’s unconstitutional. It’s harmful to the country. It’s harmful to individuals.

“We’re asking a court to make him stop,” he said. The ”we” in this case comprises Frosh’s fellow attorneys general from Washington State, the lead state in the case, as well as Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. This suit names Donald Trump and Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general, as defendants. It and another suit from Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, among others, will argue that DeJoy and the Postal Service broke the law by making operational changes to slow service without the approval of the Postal Regulatory Commission. They will also argue that these changes, which they are seeking to reverse, will impede the states’ ability to run free and fair elections. All of the attorneys general signing on to these cases are Democrats, of course. They have all the standing they need: The Constitution gives states and Congress the power to run and regulate elections. “States have the right to conduct mail-in elections if they choose,” Frosh said. “Trump is trying to undermine that.”

Not Texas, of course. Our Attorney General doesn’t object to this kind of lawbreaking. But at least one prominent Texan finds this all disgraceful.

Austin resident Carolyn Lewis, a George W. Bush-era presidential appointee and 2009 chair of the USPS board of governors, told The Texas Tribune in a series of email and phone interviews Monday and Tuesday that she has been disturbed by reports of sweeping cost-cutting measures that led to a slowdown in the mail and raised concerns that the postal service will not be able to handle an influx of mailed-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mr. DeJoy is failing to fulfill the mission of the USPS to provide prompt and reliable mail delivery at a time when that mission is as important as it has ever been,” said Lewis, who served on the USPS board of governors from 2004 to 2010, in a Monday email interview with the Tribune. “He is also destroying confidence in the organization that will only make its long-term viability even harder to achieve. If he does not change course immediately I hope the [board of governors] makes a change in leadership quickly.”

[…]

Lewis’ tenure also marked a moment of transition for the postal service. With the onset of modern technology, like email, the era marked a call for modernization in order to preserve the USPS’ mission to deliver the mail to all reaches of the country in a timely fashion while also remaining financially viable.

But DeJoy’s approach to modernization “feels different in several ways,” she said.

Alluding to a dysfunctional confirmation process within the U.S. Senate that for the last 10 years left gaping vacancies on the board, Lewis said that the postmaster general and the current board members “are very new and have none of the institutional knowledge that is usually there when you have more staggered terms of Governors.”

“Yet they seem to be rushing ahead to make changes before having time to fully understand the impact of those changes on all the stakeholders and there are many: employees, mailers, Congress and the American public,” she said.

She also has not seen “evidence that the current leadership has communicated their overall plan and goals that are driving the specific actions they are taking,” and “there is clearly not a priority on ensuring prompt and reliable mail delivery or fulfilling the mission” of the USPS.

“I do not know for certain the motivation of the [postmaster general] and the Governors, but their actions are certainly inviting questions, and legitimately so,” she added.

It took a couple of days, but this issue now has the full attention of Congress.

Houston Democratic congressional delegates on Tuesday announced they will propose legislation that would give the U.S. Postal Service an emergency loan and reverse recent cutbacks.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday afternoon that he would suspend all recent changes to the postal service until after the November election.

“Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” said DeJoy in a statement. “The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and Election Day.”

The postmaster general’s move did not satisfy Democratic lawmakers, who said legislation is needed to ensure the postal service can continue to operate at full capacity beyond November.

“What he’s proposing is not acceptable,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of DeJoy’s statement. “We need the changes to be reversed in totality forever. And that’s what the legislation is about.”

[…]

Previous legislation that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives would have provided the loan. Trump said he would block the funding.

The coming bill, also supported by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher, would also make administrators within the postal service cease and desist from making any more cuts.

Jackson Lee said she will help oversee an investigation of the extent of recent reported actions directed by DeJoy, such as terminating mail sorting machines, reducing staffing and cutting back overtime at post offices across the country.

“We need to know whether there have been any civil rights violations or criminal acts taking place,” said Jackson Lee.

DeJoy will be testifying before Congress on Friday, and I hope it’s a painful experience for him. But clearly, simply agreeing to stop wrecking the place is insufficient. If I’m caught hauling bags of money from a bank vault, it is not sufficient for me to say “okay, fine, I won’t take any more money from the vault”. Vandals are expected to make restitution, and that should very much include Louis DeJoy. Daily Kos has more.

Wait, you can’t cut that spending!

This is the sort of thing you come up with when you’re out of other ideas.

Property tax revenue would be on the line for cities that choose to defund their police departments under a new legislative proposal pitched Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

“Any city that defunds police departments will have its property tax revenue frozen at the current level,” Abbott said, flanked by the other two Republican members of the “Big Three” in Texas state government. “They will never be able to increase property tax revenue again if they defund police.”

The proposal comes after the city of Austin last week unanimously voted to cut at least $20 million from the city’s police budget and earmarked an additional $130 million to potentially be reallocated to other departments. The Austin Police Department, with over 2,600 sworn law enforcement and support personnel, has had an annual budget of more than $400 million for the past two years.

[…]

It’s unclear how the legislation will define defunding police; Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen did not respond to questions requesting clarification. In Austin’s case, most funds will stay within city coffers but will address different needs.

Yeah, I’ll bet. This was the equivalent of the three of them ripping open their shirts and shouting “HULK SMASH!”, and it should be taken as such. Here’s what Scott Henson had to say.

Grits finds this bizarre on several levels. First, I thought conservatives believed revenue caps were a good thing, not a sanction applied to liberal cities for doing something they don’t like.

Indeed, I’m old enough to remember when conservatives favored less spending and smaller government. Now the governor wants to punish cities that reduce spending. We’ve passed all the way through the looking glass, it seems.

Austin cut its police budget by less than five percent. By contrast, Gov. Abbott, the Lt. Governor and the House Speaker recently told state agencies they all must cut their budgets by 5% because of declining tax revenue in the COVID era. Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

Finally, cities around the state face budget shortfalls because of COVID combined with revenue caps the Legislature already approved. “Austin bashing” is one thing – folks in the capital city have come to expect that – but are you really going to punish every small town that must cut its police budget because tax revenue declined thanks to the virus?

Ten years ago, Texas Republicans were all about “less government” and “local control.” Now Abbott wants to micromanage municipal budgets to keep spending high. This debate is becoming downright surreal.

That’s one word for it. If you read that second link, you’ll find that most of what Austin did was move some functions out of the Police Department, thus requiring less money to be budgeted in that way, and deferred a cadet class until they revamp their training curriculum. That will likely have the effect of reducing headcount a bit in the short term through attrition, as they cut positions that are currently unfilled. It’s the most basic thing cities do, and they do it with other departments all the time.

But hey, it’s Austin, and thus Something Must Be Done, because [insert primal scream here]. I’m sure if Abbott proposed having the state fund the Austin Police Department as a way of ensuring that it never goes without ever again, Austin City Council would be willing to listen. Until then, my advice is for Abbott to resign his current position and run for Mayor of Austin. It’s clear that’s the job he really wants. The Current has more.

The economic effect of losing college football this fall

I have some sympathy, but I also have some skepticism.

Texas’ five major conference football teams – Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin — are massive economic drivers for their cities of Waco, Fort Worth, College Station, Lubbock and Austin, respectively, generating a flood of seasonal business for hotels, restaurants and bars in a typical year.

Economists and city leaders said canceling football would be devastating to local businesses that rely on the huge influxes of cash from home games.

“Forgoing even a single game costs the economy millions,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco economist and CEO of The Perryman Group. “Dealing with the health crisis is essential and must be given paramount priority, but the economic costs of restricting or eliminating college sports are very high.”

[…]

Doug Berg, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, said towns like Lubbock and College Station would feel the impact of lost game day revenue more than larger cities like Austin with its more diversified business base.

Still, UT-Austin reported in 2015 it had a local economic impact of more than $63 million per home game.

A bigger proportion of municipal budgets in smaller towns is derived from sales and hotel occupancy taxes – both of which typically experience significant hikes during football season. For college towns, “it’s like losing Christmas,” Berg said.

The toll of losing football is “larger than we care to fathom,” said Eddie McBride, president of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

One typical home game at Texas Tech, with an average attendance of about 60,000 people, pours “millions of dollars” back into the city of Lubbock, McBride said.

“We do count a lot on football,” McBride said. “It isn’t just sold seats…it’s going to people’s houses and buying food and drinks from the local grocery store and the beer store, and then going to the bars and the restaurants to watch the game.”

As we now know, the Big 12 will be playing football this fall, though what the situation with fans in the stands will be remains unclear. That’s not great for the Lubbocks and Wacos, but it’s not the worst case scenario, either. I can believe that Game Day is an economic boon in these smaller cities, but I’m way too skeptical of this type of financial forecasting to take the gloom and doom too seriously. The pattern is always big statements up front about what will or may happen, then no followup after the event in question to say what did happen. I’ve just been conditioned by too many of these in the past to take them at face value.

I mean sure, there will be fewer people visiting Lubbock and Waco on these Saturdays, and that will undoubtedly mean fewer hotel rooms rented and less beer consumed. That adds up to something, whatever it may actually be. One might speculate that the savings from fewer people catching COVID-19 as a result of this lessened activity balances this out. Maybe Ray Perryman can work up a spreadsheet on that.

The rooftop park at the downtown post office

Very cool.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The company redeveloping downtown’s former post office property will open a rooftop venue early next year as part of a five-acre park and organic farm that will top the historic building at 401 Franklin St.

Lovett Commercial said the space will host open-air weddings and other events with a dramatic skyline backdrop. The property sits on the northern end of downtown near the corner of Franklin and Bagby, across Buffalo Bayou from the bulk of the city’s office and residential towers.

Houston-based Lovett purchased the 16-acre site, formerly the Barbara Jordan Post Office, in 2015 and is remaking the space into a coworking, shopping and culinary destination with a concert venue, hotel and rooftop farm called POST Houston.

Jordan was a Houston native who was the first Black woman from the South elected to Congress. Lovett said it intends to incorporate a monument to Jordan, who died in 1996, into the property.

The campus comprises a two-story warehouse with a more than five-acre footprint and a five-story administration building facing Franklin Street.

The rooftop, to be known as the Skylawn, was designed by Hoerr Schaudt, the Chicago-based landscape architects behind Houston’s McGovern Centennial Park. The 6,000-square-foot event space will be able to host up to 300 guests.

See here for the background. The photos that accompany the Chron story look delightful. I just hope we’re all able to actually experience it someday.