COLORADO CITY — It’s 10 a.m. on a stuffy August morning and Roxie Frank is about to make what’s become a routine trip for residents of this Colorado town: Drive 60 miles to pick up her mail at the post office in Pueblo.
The hourlong trip is the latest inconvenience for the roughly 2,500 residents of Colorado City, where for decades the local post office was attached to other businesses. The arrangement worked fairly well before the pandemic. But in recent months two business owners quit, one after the other, citing lack of supplies, training and support from the U.S. Postal Service.
Residents were notified in August that their closest mail stop would be shut down and that they’d need to commute to Pueblo to check their P.O. boxes.
“Sorry for the inconvenience,” a handwritten sign posted in the window of the former post office said.
Since then, residents have complained about the cost and time needed to pick up their mail, especially with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon. Others say that even when they reach the Pueblo post office, they often don’t get all the letters they’re expecting.
Frank, for example, a veteran, got just one large envelope on a recent Saturday. It was junk mail.
Connie Resewehr, 75, who stood in line behind Frank at the Pueblo post office, was expecting to get 16 pieces of mail including utility bills. She walked out later with a thin stack of letters. No bills.
Sarah Grablauskas sometimes heads to Pueblo several times a week to pick up mailed medication for her husband, George, a veteran who jokes he’s like Elvis Presley because he takes some 400 pills a month. He’s waiting on a birthday present he thinks got lost in the mail. Sarah Grablauskas never received her primary ballot.
“Everybody thinks, well, when you buy a house anywhere in the United States, you’re going to get mail,” she said, from the couple’s home in the Applewood neighborhood. Not so, she said.
Contracted post offices were in part meant to fill in gaps in places like Colorado City, remote or fast-growing regions where the Postal Service doesn’t deliver packages to homes. Colorado City, which has a ZIP code but does not get home delivery, is an unincorporated town. It’s governed by the five-member board of a metropolitan district that provides services including water, sewer and recreation.
Business owners, in theory, get a side income from the Postal Service by selling stamps, taking packages and performing other Postal Service duties at a government-set rate. The Postal Service provides the supplies. The business owner is expected to have a storefront and to pay employees to fulfill the additional mail-related duties. A postmaster at a nearby post office normally administers the contract and provides oversight and training.
Contracted post offices exist in urban areas as well, where they are considered more of a convenience because they often have longer hours than typical USPS offices.
The cost saved on employees and overhead expenses at contract post offices has been seen as a way for the beleaguered Postal Service to combat declining revenues. In fiscal year 2011, the Postal Service kept 87 cents for each dollar of revenue made at contracted post offices.
But the contract units can be considerably less profitable in rural areas where they often serve as the sole mail office. Some outposts cost more for the Postal Service to operate than they make, according to a 2012 report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office. And in fiscal year 2011, more contract units closed than opened.
The number of contract offices has declined to 1,820 nationwide in fiscal year 2021 from 3,619 in 2011 and 5,290 in 2002.
In Colorado City, the contract post office was operated for multiple years in a small strip mall owned by Louis Guzzo. He would often threaten to quit due to what he considered difficulty making a profit and the slow USPS response times, recalls Terry Kraus, director of the Colorado City Metropolitan District Board and who also owns the local newspaper. Guzzo stuck it out until 2019. He died last year.
Residents drove to Pueblo to pick up mail for about a month before Traci Long began contracting with the USPS. Long, who moved to Colorado from the Houston area, wanted to open a bakery selling kolaches, a kind of stuffed pastry. She thought the post office operation could bring extra foot traffic to the low-slung building near a campground and help get her business, called Brunchies, off the ground.
But she was beset by challenges. The store didn’t have a counter to take and weigh packages. The P.O. boxes weren’t installed. As the pandemic began, Long felt it wasn’t safe to have residents gathering in her part-post-office-part-bakery. She temporarily had employees run a drive-through mail service.
After six or seven months, rows of silver P.O. boxes were installed in the shop. A counter was put in. Long shadowed someone at the Pueblo post office for a few days to learn how to use the computer and other processes. Before that, she’d had just one day of training where she learned how to sort mail.
The problems continued.
Packages flooded in as people, cooped up by the coronavirus, ordered more and more items to be delivered. Scanners provided by the Postal Service were so outdated Long couldn’t find batteries to keep them operating. Soon she was down to one scanner that needed to be charged regularly.
People were rude to Long and her staff. She estimates she worked 100 hours a week for three years, balancing another job with opening the bakery and running the post office. Her stress level was “ridiculous,” she recalls.
In February 2022, there was a coronavirus outbreak among Long’s employees. She learned of a major plumbing problem in the building. She heard that a customer had cursed at her skeleton crew of workers. She reached a breaking point.
“I was absolutely done,” Long recalled. “I kept telling myself ‘this is not sustainable, this is not sustainable.’ I could not find another option other than to just terminate” the contract.
Brunchies ended up closing after less than four months. The Postal Service took away the P.O. boxes.
For about a week in June, Colorado City residents waited in a parking lot to get mail from a van. They stood under the blazing summer sun as Postal Service employees scrambled to find their mail. The heat posed a safety hazard, USPS spokesman James Boxrud said.
Soon after, a Pueblo businessman named Terry Irick began contracting with USPS. He thought he could add some extra services, like copying and printing, at the mail and package distribution operation to make money. He rented the old Brunchies building and got ready to open in July.
The night before his store was set to open, Irick arrived at the old post office and found a mess. It looked like someone had lifted the roof off the building and dropped in heaps of packages and mountains of mail. Pueblo Postmaster Susan Grasmick met Irick there and handed him a mail scanner, with no word about how to use it, he said. She told him she’d be back the next day with another employee to help him open.
Irick stayed until 1:30 a.m. trying to organize the shop. The next day, no Postal Service employees arrived. He couldn’t get the scanner to work. He still hadn’t been trained. People who came in to pick up their mail noticed how overwhelmed Irick was. He estimates eight to 10 offered to help him as volunteers.
At one point, Irick sought help from the Postal Service’s tech support division for nonfunctional scanners. A tech support employee asked Irick for an ID he was never provided and said they couldn’t help him when he said he didn’t have one. The employee abruptly hung up on him, Irick recalled.
“There was zero support. There was nothing,” he said.
He almost never heard from the postmaster either.
“I had not heard one peep, one text, one email, one question, one support, one ‘I’m sorry,’ one ‘go to hell,’ none. No communications from this person at all,” he said.
Boxrud, the USPS spokesman, said Grasmick was not available for an interview. Reached by phone, Grasmick referred questions to Boxrud’s written responses.
On July 24, a Sunday, Irick compiled a list of all the items he’d expected the Postal Service to give him under his contract. There were about 20 items, seven of which he considered essential to do his job. He wanted working mail scanners, an ID to get tech support, clear information about when and how he would be paid. The volume of mail coming in far surpassed what he had expected from the contract discussions, Irick wrote in the email. He’d paid his workers out of his pocket, unable to plan or budget because he didn’t know when he would be paid.
It was a “fiasco.” A “logistical mess and nightmare.” Something he “would never, in good (conscience), have done” to anyone, Irick wrote.
He asked the Postal Service to address the shortcomings he’d raised in one week.
If they weren’t fixed, Irick said at a Colorado City Metropolitan District Board meeting a few nights later, he expected the contract post office would shut down. It wasn’t because he was quitting. It was because the post office was set up to fail, Irick said in an interview last week.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday came and went with no response.
On Thursday, Irick talked to a Postal Service employee who said the agency might be able to give him more money but didn’t address his other complaints.
On Friday, a Postal Service employee told Irick by phone that they would close the post office.
“In my estimation, it would have taken a total of 20 hours of their combined departments to fix all of those things,” Irick said. “But it was more economical and more to somebody’s plan to close that office.”
“I am not paying someone for the privilege of working that hard,” he added.
Boxrud, the USPS spokesman, said that Irick had received the agreed-upon amount of training and that a new contract has been found and is expected to start in September.
“Post Office work is not always easy to initially grasp and that’s why we provide our employees and contractors long-term opportunities. This contractor was given a multiyear contract and we were surprised that the commitment was terminated after just three weeks without notice,” Boxrud said in a written statement.
The metropolitan district board also hosted a forum Monday to see if they can get a permanent USPS office.
Challenges receiving mail are common for some Colorado towns. Long lines, stacks of unsorted packages, and delays in getting crucial mail like medications or benefit checks have plagued some mountain resort communities, with problems becoming worse during the pandemic. In the Arkansas River town of Buena Vista there is no home delivery and a P.O. box costs at least $166 a year — a predicament that recently drove residents to picket on street corners.
The service problems come as the Postal Service has lost about $100 billion since 2007, as use of its most profitable product — first-class mail — has declined, and it faces competition from for-profit package shipping businesses.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was appointed during the Trump administration, has pushed the Postal Service to slash costs as part of a 10-year plan to shore up its finances, which is expected to slow delivery of some mail and increase postage rates.
There are few options for Colorado City.
Rye, a town nearby, has a post office that would be more convenient to drive to than Pueblo. But that post office is too small to handle mail for the residents of Colorado City, many of whom are retirees on fixed incomes.
“Erecting centralized boxes would also take time to procure the boxes, secure land, prep the site, and install them on concrete pads,” Boxrud said. “And then we would need to hire and train employees to service them.”
At one point, the Postal Service had asked the metropolitan district board to donate land on which cluster boxes could be installed, said Kraus, the board director. The board agreed but didn’t hear from USPS again on the issue, he said.
Local residents have stepped in to fill the gap.
The nonprofit Senior Resource Development Agency heard of the post office closure and set up a bus that drives Colorado City residents to the Pueblo post station and back on Saturdays. It leaves around the time the post office opens, departing from the parking lot that once had the mobile mail units.
Frank, the veteran, took the bus on a recent Saturday, along with her neighbor, retired school custodian Willie Aguilera, 82.
“There are people out there who cannot — they can’t get here without special assistance. They just come up for doctor’s appointments and that’s pretty much it,” Frank said.
A woman with a mobile courier and notary service, Felisha Millett, has also gotten permission from the local post office to pick up batches of people’s mail and deliver it to their homes. She plans to work out of her minivan, which can fit her three young kids and four crates of mail, and to charge customers $25 to $30 a month.
“If they want to spend 20 bucks a month, 25 bucks a month on me bringing out their mail, instead of that 20 bucks in gas every time they have to go get it,” Millett said, “then here I am. Sign up.”