CRESTED BUTTE — Five years after Crested Butte’s troubles with the U.S. Postal Service began to pile up, lines still snake around the town’s too-small post office; residents still bemoan the difficulty of retrieving their mail; and town manager Dara MacDonald still shakes her head in resignation when asked if the town has any solutions and answers.
“It’s tough. It’s a really tough issue for our people,” MacDonald said. “But our town doesn’t have a lot of power to change anything.”
Crested Butte lately has been ratcheting up hopes for outside relief.
The Postal Service Reform Act, which passed last spring, signaled improvements would be coming to the beleaguered Postal Service nationwide with mandated six-day-a-week delivery and more than $45 billion in savings to be used for improved services overall in the next decade.
That resonated in a town without mail delivery and with an overcrowded, understaffed post office open only five days a week for five hours each day.
Another hopeful sign was the service dropping post office box fees for Buena Vista residents who don’t have home mail delivery options. Crested Butte residents had been requesting that relief for years. If Buena Vista’s fees were dropped, Crested Butte residents reasoned, surely Crested Butte’s would also soon disappear.
Crested Butte residents are still waiting.
“We’re currently evaluating various criteria for Crested Butte Post Office Box holders that take into account local laws, physical barriers, access to rural delivery etc. and reviewing who is eligible for Group E (Free) no fee Post Office Boxes in the future,” USPS spokesman James Boxrud wrote in an email response to a question about when fees might be dropped in Crested Butte.
This week, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who has been working with Crested Butte on its mail problems, sent a letter to top postal officials asking for overall improvements in deliveries, services and operations — changes that would be especially helpful in Crested Butte as well as Eagle, Gypsum, Silverthorne and other Colorado rural and resort towns with mail woes. A spokesman for Bennet’s office said that, since the pandemic, more than a dozen towns have contacted the office with concerns about postal services.
Not immune to resort town issues: space and staffing
Space is a big part of Crested Butte’s postal woes. The 3,300-square-foot Crested Butte post office on Elk Avenue is less than half the size needed for the volume of mail here. The lease of that inadequate space ends in 2026. Finding space for at least a new 8,000-square-foot post office building in a resort town where real estate has jumped sky high is not easy. Boxrud said a solution for that is in the works.
The USPS has officially admitted there is a space problem — a necessary first step — and has held a series of virtual meetings between Crested Butte and USPS officials to discuss solutions. A town-owned piece of vacant land in north Crested Butte has been identified, and the two entities are now looking at how a lease agreement might be worked out.
Staffing is also a problem. Three employees were added recently, according to Boxrud, but two are still in training. There have been days when the post office had to open late and close early because there was no one to handle the front counter.
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The idea of placing cluster boxes in new housing areas to ease the crunch at the post office has been delayed because there aren’t enough workers to collect and distribute mail to outlying areas.
Boxrud said he would like to get the message out that USPS is hiring, recognizing that it is tough in resort towns with affordable housing problems. Placing postal workers on a priority list for affordable housing along with police and first responders would help with that. So would a cost-of-living-linked wage increase for postal workers in places like Crested Butte with a high cost of living.
Crested Butte’s 800-pound gorilla
While solutions to those problems are hammered out, the online retailer Amazon remains the King Kong in Crested Butte’s postal dilemma.
Amazon is the largest of the retailers that truck in goods that can’t be bought in a small, off-the-beaten-track town with no big-box or department stores. Amazon has an agreement with the Postal Service requiring the post office to handle the “last mile” of package delivery. In Crested Butte that means scads of yellow slips in boxes for patrons who then must stand in line to pick up their packages. It means towers of boxes in the cramped confines of the post office.
“I have been in this line and given up. The last time I was here I was in line for an hour and 45 minutes,” said a woman from Mount Crested Butte, who was not-so-patiently biding her time in line on a weekday morning with a yellow slip in hand that indicating that one of the stacks of boxes crowding the post office is hers.
A few postal patrons have taken matters into their own hands by asking Amazon to “de-couple” their package delivery so that they can avoid the post office pileup. Amazon customers say it is not always a reliable solution because it has resulted in delivery mix-ups.
MacDonald has been working on the Amazon problem with building frustration that may result in legal action.
She has been requesting information on the Amazon contract with USPS since December 2017 when she wrote her first letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos asking for help.
Her most recent attempt came in August when she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details of the USPS contract with Amazon. That request was denied, and the USPS refused to even confirm that a contract exists.
“Like any prudent business, the Postal Service does not publicly discuss the specifics of our business relationships,” Boxrud wrote.
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MacDonald said it is obvious to her — and to postal patrons standing in long lines — that postal problems have been exacerbated since 2017 when the post office began handling the last-mile delivery for Amazon.
She said the town will be considering next month whether to take legal action to try to crack open the last-mile-delivery conundrum. She said it is hard for the town to seek a solution if it doesn’t know exactly what the contract specifies.
Bennet included that “third-party fulfillment” problem in his letter asking for Postal Service improvements. He acknowledged those contracts are an important part of the USPS revenue, but pointed out they have been a drain on Postal Service facilities and staff.
Democracy is at play
MacDonald said she keeps pushing for change in her town because she views it as more than a convenience issue. She points out that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish post offices, and the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed mail service essential for democratic self-rule. Universal access to mail is a legal requirement.
Not having home delivery and having a post office with limited hours that occur when most people are working “starts to raise concerns about social equity, ” MacDonald said. She said not receiving medications, ballots, paychecks, and legal notices by mail has much bigger implications than inconvenience.
“The post office shouldn’t be the weak link in voting,” she said.
Crested Butte residents are keeping up the pressure on finding solutions to the postal problems in quirky ways Crested Butte is known for.
Some residents are offering to stand in line for a fee of reportedly up to $50 an hour.
Dylan Futrell advertised his availability for stand-in-line services in a recent display ad in the Crested Butte News.
Futrell, who also has a full-time construction job, said he has had coworkers wait three weeks to pick up packages because they didn’t make it to the counter after standing in line for their entire lunch breaks.
“I got frustrated and decided to try to do something,” he said.
Al Smith, the owner of Camp 4 Coffee, has made a habit of showing up with free lemonade or coffee for those in line — his way of easing the frustration levels.
Resident Ryan Brideau is one of many residents who just feel the need to vent about a federal agency that was long enshrined in goodwill for that bygone-days jazz about nothing interfering with the completion of the letter carriers’ appointed rounds.
“Consistently the absolute worst customer service I have ever experienced anywhere in my life,” wrote Brideau in a USPS online review site. His advice to fellow residents fed up with mail-delivery problems is to go a few doors down from the post office to an anglers’ shop, “and buy some fish hooks and drive them straight into your eyeballs and then yank them.” In his estimation, it would be a lesser pain.