Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Inflated mail counts alleged

Federal inquiry targets Cincinnati

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Federal investigators will soon come to Cincinnati to find out whether the post office here accurately counts the mail.

        U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican who represents western Hamilton County, asked the General Accounting Office on Tuesday to investigate claims that postal officials routinely overestimate the amount of mail they process.

        The request is based on complaints from a former Cincinnati postal worker who says managers at the Postal Service know about the problem but refuse to fix it.

        Accurate mail counts are important because the volume of mail often is cited as a reason for postal rate increases. The counts also are factors in determining the pay-for-performance bonuses paid annually to postal managers.

        “The allegations of inflated mail counts are serious,” Mr. Chabot said Tuesday. “If these problems exist, the consumer is paying a higher cost than is appropriate.”

        Postal officials in Cincinnati deny the allegations. They acknowledge some minor problems may exist, but they say mail counts are increasingly accurate and are never intentionally inflated.

        “We're not doing anything wrong,” said Bonni Manies,spokeswoman for the Postal Service in Cincinnati.

        The controversy comes as the Postal Service grapples with budget cuts, rising costs and calls for improved efficiency.

        The accusations center on postal operations at the Cincinnati Bulk Mail Center in Sharonville. Ms. Manies said the center has 1,000 employees and processes about 500,000 pieces of mail every day.

        Former mail handler Gary Joseph, a postal employee for 20 years, said managers at the bulk mail center have inflated mail counts there for years. He claims he was harassed by his supervisors when he first complained about inaccurate counts five years ago.

        “My life has been hell since then,” said Mr. Joseph, who retired on disability this year. “I won't be happy until this is fixed. They could have done this five years ago.”

        Mr. Joseph accuses his former bosses of ignoring problems in the counting process so they could claim a higher mail volume.

        He said mail is often “recycled” at the bulk mail center, meaning it is counted more than once as it passes through processing equipment.

        Another problem, he said, involves the formula used to estimate the amount of mail contained in pallets that are unloaded daily. He said the formula overestimates the amount of mail on the pallets.

        In a 1998 audit, the Postal Service Inspector General found evidence of those problems at several of the country's 21 bulk mail centers, including the one in Cincinnati. But the audit also found that mail counts were more often too low than too high.

        “Personnel did not effectively capture and record volume,” the audit states. “Officials did not ensure that standard counting and reporting procedures were established and implemented ... and were often unaware of how volume counts were captured and reported.”

        A more recent audit by postal officials found that only minor problems remained, saying “the Cincinnati BMC has an excellent management information system.”

        Ms. Manies said mail may recycle, but it is counted only when it leaves the mail center. And she said the formulas used to calculate mail volume are constantly updated to get the most accurate count possible.

        “His accusations are without any kind of merit,” Ms. Manies said of Mr. Joseph. “I really hope this (federal investigation) puts an end to it.”

        Mr. Chabot said officials of the General Accounting Office, which is Congress' investigative branch, have told him the allegations merit a closer look. “It's appropriate for us to try to get to the bottom of this,” he said.

        Ms. Manies said the bulk mail center handles about 5 percent of the total mail volume in Cincinnati. She said the center processes magazines, mass mailings by businesses and other mail that is not classified as first- or second-class.


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