BERKELEY -- When United States Postal Service representatives meet with the community Feb. 26 on plans to sell the 99-year-old downtown post office, they'll be greeted Berkeley-style with an appearance by Ben Franklin, the first U.S. Postmaster (channeled by monologuist Josh Kornbluth), music -- with new words to "Mr. Postman" -- and strong arguments against the sale.
The community meeting is set for 7 p.m. at the Maudelle Shirek Building, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office will rally outside at 6 p.m.
The meeting is part of the USPS mandate to seek community input before formally putting property up for sale. Also, before any sale, USPS must work with the state Office of Historical Preservation to determine what parts of the landmarked building a new owner must preserve.
Harvey Smith, spokesman for Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, called the proposed sale a "theft of public property." Post offices for sale across the country "have been paid for by our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents," Smith said.
Postal officials contend, however, that property sales, reduced postal hours, consolidation of sorting facilities, elimination of Saturday mail and outsourcing trucking jobs are necessary in face of the billions of dollars USPS loses every year.
"Since 2008, when we suffered through a severe economic recession, the big businesses cut back on the use of the mail," USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz Jr. said, adding that electronic mail has had "a significant impact on our first-class volume, which is the premium product and brings in the most revenue."
There is also a $5.5 billion dollar annual payment Congress has required of USPS since 2006 to prefund 75 years of retirement benefits, and billions of dollars USPS has overpaid into the federal retirement system, Ruiz said.
Smith and Ruiz say Congress should authorize reimbursement of overpayments and reverse the requirement to prepay retirement benefits.
Smith, however, contends that cutting postal hours, selling post offices and eliminating Saturday deliveries will degrade services. That will "cripple the post office to the point where people will say, 'It's totally nonfunctional — we should privatize it,'" Smith said. "In the process, they'll also bust the postal unions."
Conservative think tanks, such as the Cato Institute, have been pushing post office privatization for years, Smith said.
Cutting Saturday deliveries will result in 25,000 fewer jobs, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers.
"The problem is that, in the situation of our economy, we need more jobs not less," Smith said.
But Ruiz said workforce cuts help the bottom line.
"If we're able to go to a five-day delivery, that will save us $2.2 billion," he said, noting USPS has already "reduced our overall employee complement by 193,000."
Most postal contracts do not permit layoffs once an employee has worked for five years, so most of the job losses were through attrition and early retirement.
African Americans have found less discrimination in public sector employment and represent about 20 percent of the USPS workforce. That means the black community is disproportionately impacted by postal job reductions. In a Feb. 7 statement opposing cuts to Saturday mail delivery, Rep. Barbara Lee wrote, "For years, being a letter carrier has been a critical pathway into the middle class for African Americans, including my grandfather, who was a proud USPS letter carrier for 35 years."
Arguing for the sale of Berkeley's downtown post office, Ruiz explained that the postal service uses just 4,000 square feet of the 57,000-square-foot building. USPS hopes a buyer will lease the retail space back to the post office, he said.
But Smith said it doesn't make sense to pay rent for a building the post office now owns. USPS should lease out unused portions of the building, he said.
However, without congressional approval, the post office cannot lease out space or participate in revenue-enhancing ventures such as banking, envelope sales or shipping beer and wine.
While Smith and Ruiz disagree on the Berkeley post office sale, both say it's up to Congress to save the postal service.
"The post office is not dying," Ruiz said. "It's really on life support. But we need some oxygen from Congress to keep us going."