GLOVERSVILLE - Keeping the U.S. Postal Service economically viable in the 21st century is a daunting task, but Gloversville native Robert Taub hopes to be part of the solution as one of five commissioners on the independent agency with regulatory oversight of the service Americans depend on almost daily.
Earlier this month, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said halting Saturday delivery of letters would cut $2 billion from its annual losses, which totaled $15.9 billion in the last fiscal year.
In the last fiscal year the USPS defaulted on its $11.1 billion retiree health benefit prefunding payment - it's the only government agency mandated to pay health benefits to future retirees. Also, the USPS exhausted its borrowing authority with the U.S. Treasury at one point last year, according to a fact sheet from www.usps.com.
United States Postal Carrier Eric Lowry delivers mail on Maple Avenue in Gloversville on Wednesday. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)
It's not the first time a cut in Saturday services was discussed, and though details will likely remain broad until March, the new delivery schedule would continue package delivery six days a week, post offices currently open on Saturdays would remain open and mail would be delivered to Post Office boxes on Saturdays.
The changes are scheduled to begin Aug. 5.
Some lawmakers question whether the Postal Service can make such a change without Congressional approval since a 1981 Congressional mandate required the USPS maintain six-day delivery, but the USPS argues the continuing resolution - appropriations legislation passed by Congress to fund government agencies since no formal appropriations bill has passed - does not specifically mandate six-day delivery, so the Postal Service can make the changes.
Earlier this month Donahoe testified before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about that issue and also requested legislation to allow the USPS to make other changes that he said would allow it to better compete in the modern marketplace.
"Within our current business model, we have been very aggressive in our efforts to reduce costs. Since 2006 we have reduced the size of our workforce by 193,000 employees. We have reduced our cost base by $15 billion dollars. We have consolidated more than 200 mail-processing facilities. We are modifying operations at 13,000 Post Offices and we have reduced 21,000 delivery routes," Donahoe testified.
The Postal Regulatory Commission, on which Taub is vice chairman, released a statement Feb. 6: "The Postal Service's announcement today provides only a broad outline of its new Saturday delivery schedule. Thus, the Commission is currently unable to evaluate how the new plan differs from the previous proposal," the statement reads.
In March 2011 - before Taub's appointment - the commission issued an advisory opinion on a previous proposal to eliminate Saturday delivery.
Taub said the commission's role in the current plans will depend largely on what the USPS announces in March.
"It remains to be seen," Taub said. The USPS may ask for another advisory opinion from the commission, or it may decide the previous advice given by the commission is sufficient, Taub said.
"That, too, will play out in the coming weeks," Taub said. "Without knowing the real details of their proposal, it's not clear, to what extent, it is radically different [from the previous proposal]."
But Taub said what went into the $2 billion cost-saving estimate is critical, and some differences in the two proposals are already clear.
"The major difference - knowing what we do - is maintaining parcel delivery. That's a major change because the proposal they came to the commission with before was pretty much going to 5 days [completely]."
In the commission's 2011 opinion, the panel stated the previous changes would have caused 25 percent of first class and priority mail to be delayed. It also said the USPS did not evaluate the impact of the proposal on customers who live or do business in rural areas.
"From my own livable experience, rural America does have unique needs and circumstances. I think the Postal Service acknowledges [this]," Taub said. "In terms of the proposal before us, how -if at all - it might impact rural versus urban areas, I don't know. We need to see the details on that. The Postal Service needs to pay particular attention to potential impacts on rural areas."
The fact that this proposal will keep post office boxes accessible on Saturday is an example of a rural issue.
"I'm hopeful they incorporated the commission's advice in the details of the new proposal. Before we see them unveiled, it's difficult to note with certainty," Taub said.
As for whether the USPS has the authority to alter its delivery schedule, that's an issue more for Congress than for the Postal Regulatory Commission, Taub said.
Taub was sworn into his commission seat about 16 months ago. He serves during an historic and difficult time for the USPS as electronic communication moves in on paper mail, yet e-commerce increases package delivery. It's all about conforming to a more customer-based model, according to Donahoe's testimony.
"It's humbling, and it's challenging. I do derive some measure of personal satisfaction from the challenge," Taub said. "In the proverbial troubled waters, the challenges are immense. I wish, certainly like all of us, that things were OK in he postal world, but to be here in this challenging tim and in some small way try to be part of the solutions is a humbling yet wonderful opportunity."
Taub was picked by President Barack Obama in 2011 to sit on the Postal Regulatory Commission.
His nomination was approved by the U.S. Senate, and in October 2011 he was sworn in on the five-member panel. This year he was chosen by the commission to serve as vice chairman.
After 16 months in the job, Taub, 48, says he's loving the opportunity.
"I enjoy it. It's a challenge. I kind of view this as a judicial role. It's somewhat like being a judge on a multi-judge panel," Taub said in an interview from Washington, D.C., this week with The Leader-Herald.
Though he lives in the Washington area now, Taub said the 12078 postal code will always feel like home.
The Postal Regulatory Commission is an independent agency created by the Postal Reorganication Act of 1970.
According to its website, www.prc.gov, it is the primary regulator of the Postal Service with a responsibility of ensuring "transparency and accountability" of operations.
The commission was tasked with conducting public hearings about major postal service changes that would affect customers nationwide such as proposed rate changes or mail classification.
In 2006 the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act strengthened the commission's authority to serve as "a counterbalance to new flexibility granted to the Postal Service in setting postal rates," according to the website.
"The Act requires the Commission to develop and maintain regulations for a modern system of rate regulation, consult with the Postal Service on delivery service standards and performance measures, consult with the Department of State on international postal policies, prevent cross-subsidization or other anticompetitive postal practices, promote transparency and accountability, and adjudicate complaints," according to the agency's website.
Taub's roots in politics stretch back to his days at Gloversville High School - class of 1982 - when he worked at former Assemblyman Glen Harris' office once a week after class.
He served for more than a decade as the chief of staff to U.S. Rep John McHugh, who served as the 23rd Congressional District for nine terms. In 2009, McHugh was confirmed as the Secretary of the Army, and Taub worked as his special assistant until his appointment to the Postal Regulatory Commission.
He said McHugh introduced him at his confirmation hearing before the Senate.
His role now is especially suitable. During his work in the congressional office he helped develop the Postal Accountability Enforcement Act, which modernizing the nation's postal laws for the first time since the 1970s.
"Having worked on these issues for so long on Capital Hill, I had a sense of what I was getting into when I accepted the president's nomination," Taub said.
Taub also served as a senior analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office from 1987 to 1994. He graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from American University in Washington, D.C.
In his time on the commission, Taub was involved in issuing an advisory opinion (August 2012) for the Postal Service's Post Office Structure Plan, which matched post office retail hours with demand.
"Rather than close post offices," Taub said, the commission advised the USPS to match workload hours to retail hours to save money.
There were some Post Offices involved in that plan in the local area. Fort Johnson went from eight hours to six as did Lake Pleasant and Speculator. A few others also were affected.
The question overall, Taub said, is "how do you have a system largely built around letters and flats take advantage of one growth area and have commercial flexibility? Despite all the changes for the Postal Service and billions of dollars in losses, this is still a fundamental key part of our economy."