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In Colorado mountain towns, the U.S. Post Office no longer delivers like it used to

One town received no mail for a week; another had sales-tax rebates returned as "undeliverable." New survey reveals understaffed post offices taxed by population growth, online shopping

Alisa Krakel braves a winter storm to collect her mail from the United States Postal Service's mail annex located in Crested Butte South. Since home delivery is not available in the Crested Butte area residents of outlying areas get their mail from post office "cluster" boxes located in or near their communities. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Margaret Bowes has personally felt the pain of a poorly functioning postal system in Colorado’s resort towns.

In her role as executive director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, she recently ordered paper goods from an out-of-town supplier and specified that they be delivered to her home office in Dillon.

Instead of receiving the items at her home, she found a slip of yellow paper in her work-related post office box notifying her that packages were available for pickup at the post office window. That meant standing in line, schlepping seven heavy boxes into her car, and then up the stairs to her office. She never found out why they ended up there instead of at her home.

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“It was a pain in the butt,” said Bowes, who recently compiled complaints about resort-town postal woes for a ski town association survey.

That survey showed mounting problems at often understaffed post offices that are crammed into often too-small spaces in towns where home mail delivery is usually not an option. The offices are dealing with the double whammy of population growth along with the increasing pressure of more package volume from online purveyors of goods, including the behemoth Amazon.

The packages are piling up, and so are complaints. The survey cataloged long waits in lines, snarls in deliveries, lost packages, mail returned as “undeliverable,” packages going to post offices rather than home addresses, and confusion on both sides of the post office counters.

Crucial mail-order medications have been lost. Late fees have been assessed because utility bills were never delivered. Gifts have gone missing. Overnight mail has turned into five-day mail. One town hall went for a week without receiving a single piece of mail because everything had been returned to senders as “undeliverable.”

MORE: Amazon deliveries — essential in Colorado mountain towns — causing package pile-ups, long lines at tiny post offices

Problem worst in towns where there is no home delivery

The problems appear to be worst in towns where there is no home delivery. Amazon has contracted with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver packages across the country, but in small towns without home delivery that means the majority of those packages must be picked up in tiny post offices where lines during holidays are daunting and waits of more than an hour are not out of the ordinary.

It also means confusion for consumers who don’t understand why packages ordered to their home addresses can too often end up lost or returned.

“It’s a crapshoot how things get delivered here,” read a survey comment from the Town of Winter Park.

“Seems like a hopeless situation that will require an Act of Congress,” read one from Steamboat Springs.

The problems go beyond inconvenience, town officials say. In towns without home delivery, local post offices are also viewed as community anchors: places to chat and feel a civic connection. When the post office is no longer trustworthy and instead is a center for frustration, citizens in these small towns take it hard.

From Estes Park to Crested Butte, town officials have been asking for help with this problem from anyone and everyone, including U.S. Postal Service officials, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and their congressional representatives and senators. The problem, officials have stressed, not only harms quality of life — it also damages economic development. Businesses have trouble functioning without reliable communication and delivery of goods.

So far, relief is slow in coming.

“Absolutely zero progress,” Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt said when asked if nearly two years of town gripes, dozens of communications with Amazon, and several meetings with postal officials have had any impact.

Customers wait their turn in line, many for up to an hour, in the Crested Butte Post Office on Dec. 31, 2018. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Crested Butte’s most recent holiday postal woes prompted the ski town association survey and the survey’s revelation that postal problems are widespread. The survey also revealed that postal policies, such as charging or not charging for P.O. boxes, vary from town to town. Across Colorado, the survey showed that frustrated citizens have been taking their complaints to town officials, chambers of commerce, and even to the police.

Most of the complaints are not directed at local postal workers; grievances are aimed at the federal postal system that has been operating at a loss for a dozen years and has turned to package delivery to shore up its finances. It hasn’t helped that, at the same time, the Postal Service has moved into a secrecy mode befitting a national security agency. Local postal officials aren’t authorized to discuss problems with customers and are prohibited from talking to the media. Those higher up who can talk aren’t saying much.

James Boxrud, acting manager for area corporate communications for the postal service, responded to questions about specific problems in Colorado towns and to requests for package-volume numbers with this:

“The Postal Service has seen increases in package volumes across the US for several years, including Colorado resort communities. We continue to innovate our sorting, transportation and delivery methods to meet the growing demand in our communities. We continue to hire in many locations so that we can serve our customers efficiently. USPS delivers more e-commerce packages to American homes than any other shipper. Our unrivaled network and infrastructure enable America’s e-commerce and will facilitate its future growth.”

The Postal Service Office of Inspector General has reported that more than 106 million pieces of mail were delayed at the Denver processing facility from October 2017 through June 2018. That represented a 53 percent increase in delays from the previous fiscal year. The Postal Service does not release figures for delays or other problems at individual post offices.

The Big Thompson River flows in front of the post office in Estes Park on June 10. (Austin Humphreys, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Leaving town to send mail from a more reliable post office

Estes Park Town Manager Frank Lancaster said he has had talks with postal officials, but he hasn’t been able to get any details about what is at the root of the many problems in his town.

Many resort town post offices experience most of the problems over the holidays when populations increase and mail volume jumps. In Estes Park, Lancaster said the problems are now year-round. Some people make a 45-minute drive to Lyons or Loveland just to mail packages because they don’t trust that they will be delivered from Estes Park.

That mistrust is not misplaced: the Estes Park town hall can testify to that. Some town mail has been returned to senders because it had the physical address for town hall rather than a post office box number. In a town the size of Estes Park, Lancaster said he can’t fathom why postal workers wouldn’t just give the mail to the town hall or put it in their post office box rather than go to the trouble of returning it to senders.

“It’s hard to figure out what the issue is,” Lancaster said.

Schmidt said in Crested Butte, where he has lived for 43 years and is very well known as the mayor, some mail addressed to his home has been returned to sender rather than just slipped in his box or handed to him when he makes his daily stop at the post office.

“I hate things that are stupid. And this is stupid,” Schmidt said.

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It’s an economic development issue

The Town of Snowmass Village sent a litany of problems to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in April that included the fact that the town did not receive a single piece of mail for a week over the Christmas holiday season.

Sales tax rebates mailed out by the town were returned to town hall three weeks after they were mailed. They had been stamped “undeliverable” even though the local addresses proved to be correct. Utility bills showed up at some homes a month after they were mailed — and after late fees had been applied for nonpayment. Car registration renewal information mailed from the Pitkin County Clerk in nearby Aspen on Dec. 6, 2018, arrived in Snowmass Village Jan. 2, 2019.

The Snowmass complaint letter included a photo of a stuffed and overflowing box in the post office lobby where postal patrons place mail that has been delivered to the wrong boxes.

“The inability to rely on the Postal Service to deliver medications, critical financial documents, and other parcels has put our entire community at wit’s end,” Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler wrote to Tipton.

Eagle Mayor Anne McKibben wrote a similar letter warning that postal problems there “will start having tangible effects on economic development and our community members’ ability to efficiently receive this critical service.”

McKibben pointed out that Eagle is facing worsening mail problems with three new planned developments that could add 1,500 residential units—and put more pressure on an already too small post office.

Tipton’s office received several dozen letters and phone calls and sent examples of the complaints to U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan pointing out that customer service at some post offices in his Third District “has fallen alarmingly short of expectations.”

He highlighted a possibly deadly outcome of the poor service when packages with crucial medications aren’t delivered to rural postal customers. He also cited reports of lost packages after package-pickup notices have been placed in boxes, post offices closing during hours when they are supposed to be open and a postmaster in the Town of Westcliffe, “screaming, harassing and intimidating constituents.”

Tipton received promises to address some of the problems, but nothing that would fix the overall postal mess. The postal service promised to add a voicemail to phone systems so customers can leave messages, to address the Westcliffe postmaster’s tirades, to add more and bigger post office boxes in Eagle, and to remodel the Snowmass post office.

Customers wait in line at the Snowmass Village post office on March 23, 2019. (Anna Stonehouse, The Snowmass Sun)

Tipton spokesman Matthew Atwood said the congressman is continuing to work on the larger issue through support for legislation that will preserve six-day mail delivery and restore service standards to postal deliveries.

Snowmass Village Town Manager Clint Kinney said he hasn’t seen any change yet in spite of his town’s offer to help the postal service find a new, larger location for a post office.

“It (postal problems) is still one of the biggest issues we deal with,” he said. “The postal service has acknowledged it’s an issue. That’s all we have right now.”

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