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Mail boxes across the street from the local post office on June 7 in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

BUENA VISTA — Even in these politically divided times, one topic has united this 3,000-person town in Colorado’s high country: frustration with the local U.S. Postal Service office. 

Residents complain that prescriptions are lost. Bills come late. Mail goes to the wrong post office box, or is inexplicably returned to the sender. 

“A joke.” “TERRIBLE.” “Insane!!!” residents have fumed in a local Facebook group documenting six years of complaints from its 287 members. 

But the real rub is the cost: Buena Vista residents have for decades paid for post office boxes, while those living just outside town limits get mail delivered to their home for free. 

The latest affront came earlier this year when residents learned their annual rates would be nearly doubled — to $134 for the smallest box. 

“I just got my bill for the coming year,” resident Bill Coleman posted on Facebook, “almost fell out of my chair.”

In Buena Vista — an Arkansas River town popular with tourists and outdoor enthusiasts — residents have no choice but to pay for a post office box. They don’t get mail delivered to their homes, don’t have cluster boxes, and don’t get the no-fee post office boxes that the USPS advertises. 

They stand apart from the majority of Colorado communities that offer at least one way for residents to get their mail for free. It’s unknown how many places are in the same position as Buena Vista.

There are more than 30,000 post offices nationwide and no records detailing how many places can’t get the no-fee post office boxes, James Boxrud, a spokesman for USPS said.

But residents have filled in the gaps with their own research. They believe a 1997 survey of town residents — in which they opted out of having mail delivered to their homes — might be why they can’t get free post office boxes. At the time of the survey, the post office was a central gathering place — a kind of social hub, said Grace Garret, one of a handful of residents who have called, researched, emailed and diligently posted on Facebook in hopes of fixing their mail woes. 

She even found the survey — which had just one question — but it said nothing about residents having to pay.

The survey asked residents to check one of two boxes: “Yes, I am in favor of street delivery in Buena Vista.” “No, I do not want street delivery in Buena Vista.”

Frustration and surprise at the cost to rent a box in the local USPS office has simmered for years but turned to anger in recent months when the annual rate increased from about $56 in 2021 to $134 and then $166 in 2022 for the smallest boxes. 

Shirley Dale, a Buena Vista resident of 17 years, unloads a package inside the Buena Vista post office to be shipped. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Local post office looking to hire amid long lines to pick up packages. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Residents believe the annual fees are unfair and an added insult considering their long-running complaints about poor service and chronic understaffing at the office. 

They’ve hunted down USPS employees and contacted local and state officials. They’ve gone to the local paper, firing off an op-ed branding the post office service a “disaster.” 

So far, little has changed — leaving some residents with a feeling that they’re being “held hostage,” with no choice but to pay or stop receiving mail. 

“It is the No. 1 topic of conversation. Even with politics. The No. 1 thing,” said Coleman, who moved to the Chaffee County town in 2020. “You can stop anybody. ‘You live in town?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you have problems with the post office?’ Let me tell you!’”

“It can’t get much worse”

Residents in Colorado mountain towns and rural areas where home delivery is scarce have long complained of lengthy wait times and unreliable service from USPS. 

The beleaguered Postal Service has lost more than $90 billion since 2007, due to a decrease in its most profitable product — first-class mail — and a requirement that the self-funded agency prepay retirees’ health care costs. The nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office has included the USPS on a “high-risk” list since 2009 because of its “unsustainable and deteriorating” financial condition. And the Postal Service has struggled to retain employees, with Boxrud saying it hasn’t been immune from the effects of the pandemic and a labor shortage.

People turned to ordering more items online during the pandemic, and communities in Colorado swelled as urban dwellers moved in, sometimes eclipsing the number of available boxes and further straining the postal system.

In Buena Vista, sales tax from online purchases increased 54% in 2021 from 2020, while taxes on local retail sales went up 23%. 

Buena Vista residents share the common complaints about service but are unique in that they must pay to get their letters. 

Other mountain towns have in the past persuaded their post offices to waive the fees.

In 2004, Summit County residents learned they would be getting free mailboxes as postal officials reviewed their policies and maps to hammer out inconsistencies, according to a news article from the time. A local postal official told the Summit Daily then that residents are entitled to a free post office box if the Postal Service doesn’t offer delivery in their area and they live within town limits. 

A 2018 report from the USPS Office of Inspector General said the agency in 1998 decided to grant “a P.O. Box, at no cost, to customers who do not receive any form of carrier delivery.” 

The goal was “to better fulfill the Postal Service’s mission of providing universal mail delivery to the nation,” the report said. Before then, most USPS customers who couldn’t get mail delivered paid to rent a post office box.

In 2018, there were about 1.3 million no-fee post office boxes at 12,556 “retail units” where USPS did not offer any other form of mail delivery, the report said. 

Rural carrier James Wood delivers mail to “exceptional” in-town customers, such those who have medical conditions, before venturing out on his route outside Buena Vista town limits. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Still, a 2002 court decision states there is no “right to receive a no-fee mailbox.” And the post official who spoke to the Summit Daily around 2004 said that if mail delivery has been offered and refused, residents must pay for boxes. 

Boxrud said the USPS is currently reviewing its “box availability and processes” with various government officials. Free boxes are issued on a case-by-case basis, with the regional USPS district evaluating eligibility for Colorado individuals, he said.

The 1997 survey is likely used as proof that town residents refused delivery, Garret said — though her research shows residents actually voted in favor of mail delivery, that they had only six days to turn in the surveys, and that the surveys didn’t go to everyone. A USPS official told her the agency can’t find the survey. Buena Vista’s town administrator can’t either. 

Other residents say they shouldn’t be held to a decision made in 1997, when the cost of renting a post office box was significantly lower.

Buena Vista residents have gone to the USPS branch, a half mile off West Main Street, and tried to apply for free post office boxes. 

Coleman asked for an application form on May 12.

The “clerk responded with a slight chuckle,” he recalled.

“No,” she said.  

He was told to speak to a higher up who told him Buena Vista was an “exempt town” and that only one person had a free post office box. 

A few weeks later, several residents clustered in a small room at the public library to complain about the mail service. Garret, one of those leading the charge to fix the local USPS office, revealed she had gotten a copy of an old application form for a free box. She declined to say how. (“Let’s just say a friend of a friend of a friend,” said Mary Ann Uzelac, Garret’s partner in pushing for mail reform.)

“You know what we should do,” said Rebecca Hinds, who’s lived in Buena Vista for about 13 years, “we should just copy this and we should just stand outside the post office and hand it out to people.”

“We should put a full-page ad — pay for it — in the newspaper,” she said. 

“Oh, let the shitstorm start,” Coleman said. 

He had just come from the post office, where he’d waited in a 25-minute line — not unusual, residents said — and then paid $106 for a 6-inch-by-6-inch box for six months. The man in line behind him paid $212 for a year. 

“They’ve already raised the rates,” Uzelac said. “It can’t get much worse.”

A sign in the Buena Vista post office in May, when Coleman paid, advertised an annual fee of $188 for a 6-inch-by-6-inch box and $322 or $388 for larger ones. 

The annual costs hit residents on fixed-income the hardest. 

Deb Noble, for example, is not working due to health issues and her husband, 73, has health problems, too. “It hurt really bad to pay that $212.” 

Residents have been locked out of their boxes if they don’t pay.

The cost to rent a post office box in Buena Vista has steadily increased over the last 20 years, according to a list compiled by Uzelac. She was surprised when she moved there in 2004 and was charged $24 for a box. She’d never before had to pay to get mail. 

The cost jumped significantly in the last year because the town was designated a “competitive” area, where charges could be increased because residents have more options. 

Boxrud with USPS didn’t say why Buena Vista was deemed a “competitive” location. 

The price changes are part of the Postal Service’s 10-year plan to reach financial sustainability, as the agency’s operations are normally not subsidized by tax dollars, he said. The prices charged by local competitors, consumer demand and the increasing costs of doing business, including fuel, transportation, and health care benefit costs, were considered in the decision, he said. 

“Even with the increases, USPS prices remain among the world’s most affordable,” Boxrud said. 

But Buena Vista residents say nothing has changed that would make it easier for them to get mail. The only difference they can think of is that one mail and copy center changed owners and moved locations, with the new shop adding post office boxes that can be accessed at all hours. The previous owner held mail in the back for residents. 

Long line inside the local post office to pick up packages Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Buena Vista. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The store is a great fallback, residents say, but the hours are limited and the operation is tiny. Signs outside the building, on the outskirts of town, said it operates Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays until 2 p.m. It charges between $90 and $150 a year for mailboxes. 

“This is the way it works in our town”

With frustrations simmering, Buena Vista town administrator Phillip Puckett, state senators and local officials have been meeting virtually with USPS representatives to try to address mail issues that plague mountain towns in Colorado. 

Of the 10 towns participating, Buena Vista and Crested Butte residents are the only ones being charged to get mail, as far as Puckett knows. 

But all of them share complaints about service from the federal postal system: waits of more than an hour; packages piling up in tiny post offices; overnight mail coming five days late.

Hinds said she had a late fee attached to her sanitation district bill last year because it wasn’t delivered. The fees were waived, with the sanitation district telling Hinds they had a batch of mail returned. 

Noble once ordered a package on Amazon that never arrived. She learned its fate when she saw a resident post a picture of an overflowing basket of mail placed in the wrong post office box. A padded brown envelope was sticking out of it — bearing her name.

Other residents describe the pains they take to try to make sure packages arrive. 

Some websites don’t accept residents’ post office box addresses. If they enter their home address, the USPS office will sometimes just return it to the sender, rather than cross-referencing it with a list of post office boxes, residents said. They’ve been told to add their post office box number to the line where an apartment or unit number would be included. Even then, it’s hit or miss if the package will be delivered.

Garret, for example, had her mother’s deed and father’s death certificate mailed to her following the format USPS told her to use. Both were returned. She eventually got them and brought them into the post office to ask what part of the address was wrong. The woman working said it was correctly addressed. She’s since had a Mother’s Day card returned.

Faced with the same frustration, Coleman said he’s begun calling companies to ask if they use UPS, FedEx or USPS and trying to explain how to deliver it to his post office box. 

“This is the way it works in our town,” he’ll say.

His mom recently said she’d send him some bonds using a signature-guaranteed USPS service. He inhaled, making a skeptical face as he remembered. “OK, I mean, I’d really prefer it if you just ship it FedEx or something,” he said he told her.

He called the situation “maddening.”

Uzelac, who started the Facebook group to pressure the post office, has urged residents to catalog their complaints there so they have a record of their problems. The page is now a compilation of frustrated residents venting about the mail — and others trying to help or instigate change — going back to 2016.

“I believe the Postal Service is taking advantage of us in Buena Vista. We pay for stamps, and are forced to pay high rates for a P.O. Box because they don’t deliver to the house,” Gary Cuffe, who has lived in town since 1993, wrote on May 6. “We pay through the nose!” 

“Some days our box is empty, other days very little, and still others with several days’ worth of mail angrily crammed in as if to suggest we never check our mail,” Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker commented on a May 13 post. Baker used to get the local newspaper delivered on time, Thursdays, the day after it was sent to the printers. Recently it’s been coming later, sometimes not until Saturday, limiting its usefulness.

Local USPS officials are aware of “delivery issues” in Buena Vista and are taking steps to address concerns, Boxrud said. With President Joe Biden signing an approximately $107 billion USPS reform act in April, some are hopeful improvements are on the horizon.

Residents don’t blame the short-handed postal workers. But Uzelac said the town has been growing — with new residents stunned after moving to the “cute little town that they have to put up with this.”

She’d recently gone to the postal office and found 17 people in line, with one person helping them. In that situation, people don’t want to get back in line just to return a wrongly delivered box, she said. 

“Something has to be done,” Uzelac said. “We just want to make some noise that we matter just as much as anybody else.”

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma