Colorado mountain towns get serious about addressing Postal Service problems
How several Eagle County towns are working to solve widespread issues on the Western Slope
While mountain towns in Colorado have long relied on post offices in lieu of home delivery from the U.S. Postal Service, the recent explosion of the towns’ populations and online shopping orders as well as insufficient funding and postal service staffing challenges have all led to significant consequences at local post offices.
And while some of the problems aren’t necessarily new, many have gotten worse. Many Eagle County post offices are experiencing longer waits, staffing challenges, space constraints, lost mail and overall confusion on how to use PO boxes — with the challenges varying town by town.
“There’s been complaints about the post office for years, but they really ramped up once COVID hit,” said Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes. “For our local post office, we’ve heard complaints about really long lines; filthy, dirty facilities with mail and overflowing boxes. The mailboxes where you put your letters being crammed full, so there’s privacy concerns about mail falling out of the boxes and being left all over the place.”
Specifically, Smith Hymes noted that the increased reliance on online shopping and services like Amazon have “overloaded the ability of our rural post offices,” calling the situation a “nightmare.”
“This has just added a whole new set of challenges for what was already a stressed infrastructure,” she said.
For Avon, these challenges are compounded by the sheer number of individuals the post office serves. In addition to those that live in Avon, the town’s post office also provides services for Beaver Creek, Arrowhead, Bachelor’s Gulch and EagleVail.
Similar challenges are present in Gypsum, where Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann cited inadequate space as the catalyst for a number of its post office problems.
“Gypsum’s post office is one of the smallest in the county — post offices in Wolcott, Bond and McCoy are smaller of course — but Gypsum has the largest population of any municipality in Eagle County,” Rietmann wrote in an email to the Vail Daily.
He went on to list that the main concerns for the Gypsum post office include parking lot traffic flow and safety concerns; long wait times for counter service; inadequate building space, both for package delivery as well as the interior space for mailboxes, customers, mail sorting, customer service provision and staff; and a building and parking lot that are in poor condition and in a state of disrepair.
“These problems are growing due to population growth and increased online ordering and purchasing through internet retailers,” Rietmann wrote. “Package delivery through Amazon and other similar retailers flowing through the local Post Office compounds the problem because customers must go to the counter to receive their packages, and there’s just not enough space and staffing to make retrieval an efficient process.”
Vail has nearly the opposite problem as Gypsum in that its post office seems too large for the service and population it provides. Vail Town Manager Scott Robson said that Vail has recently come to learn that its post office was initially built as a regional distribution center, but no longer serves this function.
“As we look at that post office in Vail, it does seem like a much bigger footprint of a space than the services they provide now versus say 20 years ago,” Robson said.
Still, Robson said that the town hears similar complaints and concerns.
“We’re seeing extended times for mail to arrive, certainly more lost packages and lost mail than I think our community is used to seeing; it’s just not arriving at all,” Robson said. “We have some real concerns with the physical state of the building, the landscaping, the parking lots; just some of the basic elements of the physical structures seem to be lagging behind from a deferred maintenance standpoint.”
Robson said he has seen these problems, and the complaints, in Vail escalate in the last three years.
“It’s an important service, but it’s not at the level of quality and speed that I think our citizens are used to,” he said.
Eagle County manager Jeff Shroll said that the commissioners have heard from several town managers expressing concern and frustrations. In listing these concerns, he said “that most of our facilities in all the towns are not appropriately sized and staffed for today’s times; they simply cannot keep up with demand; lines are long, service is slow.”
“My own observation living in the valley for 30 years is that as we have grown by about 20,000 people in this county, none of the USPS offices received much if any kind of upgrade to keep up with population growth. Home delivery services have shrunk rather than been expanded,” Shroll said.
A quick search of the word post office on the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook page will drum up a number of posts, some with a hundred or more comments, where people vent and air their grievances with not only local post offices, but postal service in the community. Many of these reiterate concerns about late or missing mail as well as long wait times. Often, posters are looking for advice on getting packages delivered to a post office. Plus, many posters express gratitude for the local postal workers.
Similarly, in discussing challenges, Smith Hymes, Rietmann, Robson and Shroll were all quick to point out that many of these problems are representative of systemic challenges, and not reflective of local staff.
“In Gypsum’s case, it’s been my experience that local postal staff is trying their best, but they’re resource constrained,” Rietmann said. “The local team appears to be doing their best with the tools they have in really trying circumstances.”
James Boxrud, Postal Service spokesperson for the Western Area of the United States, wrote in an emailed statement that “the challenges in our mountain communities have been consistent.”
“Staffing has been and continues to be our biggest challenge. The cost of living and lack of affordable housing are a large contributor not only for the Postal Service, but all employers,” he continued. “The advent of the pandemic, the increase of consumer use of ordering necessities online and the national employment challenges have exacerbated this for our mountain communities.”
As these challenges worsen, these local municipalities are now attempting to take matters into their own hands.
However, enacting local change with a federal agency is no easy feat. While many of the challenges are reflective of larger systemic problems with the Postal Service, each post office is run individually and thus the solutions also exist individually in some cases.
“USPS itself has communicated that they don’t find it all that helpful to receive generalized complaints about ‘multiple town’s’ problems with mail services because (in their view) the problems and solutions are different in each case and need addressed separately,” Rietmann said.
Gypsum has been trying to address its challenges since around November 2020.
“Direct communication with the USPS is extraordinarily difficult, but I think we’re finally making progress,” Rietmann said.
Since 2020, the town has tried a number of approaches, including discussing challenges with the local postmaster; sending letters to all members of its congressional delegation (copying the commissioners in these communications); encouraging residents and giving them the tools to write to congressional representatives; having discussions and checking in regularly with congressional field staff to keep effort focused on the problem; keeping new developers informed of post office challenges; brokering conversations between new and existing property owners with local post office staff to keep discussions going on new locations for a facility; and having a dialogue with regional Postal Service staff.
Of the challenges in enacting change, Rietmann said, is “it’s difficult to communicate effectively with an entity the size of the United States Postal Service. Getting routed to the right people to have the discussion with is the first challenge, the second is keeping our needs consistently in front of the USPS so that our needs are prioritized, and a solution can be developed.”
In these discussions, Rietmann said that alternatives like cluster boxes and full home delivery have been contemplated. But even this, the town has little control over.
“Both delivery options are progressively more expensive for the Postal Service than operating a Post Office location. Given the Postal Service’s poor financial condition, those options don’t look very likely, but we’ll continue to make the case for them,” he said. “It’s up to the Postal Service to decide how to serve different communities and what delivery model to use. For our part, we’ll continue to communicate Gypsum’s needs and the problems we’re observing and what solutions we think might help alleviate them.”
With all this communication, there has been some movement from the Postal Service. Gypsum is scheduled for a “space constraint study” in the next 60 days, Rietmann said. “This is the Postal Service’s first step towards evaluating the needs of a postal location and working towards solutions.”
Still, “the process isn’t a swift one,” Rietmann said. And as the town continues to try and move forward in addressing challenges, he noted that citizens shouldn’t feel shy about communicating their service concerns to local postmasters.
“But they should do so respectfully and treat postal employees how they would like to be treated,” he added.
Other municipalities have not made as much headway as Gypsum.
Vail, Robson said, has just started a process to rethink its post office.
“It just feels like an appropriate time to really revisit what the operational and size needs are of a facility like that and maybe there’s a win-win here where we could rethink how that very large site is utilized while still ensuring that there’s a central post office here in Vail,” Robson.
Specifically, the town has begun to think how the Postal Service site could possibly better serve the town’s housing needs.
“Given it’s next door proximity to Timber Ridge Apartments, there’s certainly been a fair bit of conversation around whether the town of Vail may be able to partner with the U.S. Postal Service down the road to potentially utilize that parcel for something like affordable or attainable housing,” Robson said.
The Timber Ridge apartments are currently scheduled for redevelopment in 2023. With this close date, in addition to the rising service issues, working with the Postal Service on a solution has “risen to the top of some of the priorities,” Robson said, adding that the town is hoping to work with the Postal Service in 2022. But so far, little movement has been made.
“We’ve been challenged to find the right contacts at the federal level to really get movement on this, so we have been relying on some of those contacts through Congressman Neguse’s office, Sen. Bennet and Sen. Hickenlooper to help us narrow in those conversations with the right folks,” Robson said.
While at this point Avon has yet to make much headway, Council member Amy Phillips is ready to take on the challenge. There were a few things that made Phillips want to address some of the issues, but her main “trigger” was the introduction of the federal program to deliver free at-home COVID-19 tests to residents via the Postal Service.
“All I could envision was pallets of COVID tests on the back dock of the Avon Post Office,” Phillips said.
Phillips has some ideas for possible changes, including increasing education for new residents, trying to engage the county commissioners in solutions, looking into ways to add more package boxes as well as implement a seasonal janitorial service. But first, she said she’d like to start by meeting with the local postmaster.
Plus, she said she’s appreciative of the work Rietmann has been doing in Gypsum.
“I’m glad someone’s been on top of this because then I have someone to piggy back off of — we’re not starting from scratch,” she said.
Smith Hymes added that she feels it’s time to ramp up the pressure.
“Given this new climate we’re in where the post office has become much more critical in terms of delivering goods — not just mail, but goods, they’re kind of a juggernaut — I think putting pressure on both our elected representatives and on the management of the Postal Service, by exerting pressure and demanding a response, and demanding better service, is all that we can do at this point,” she said.
On the county level, Shroll said that up until this point the county hasn’t been engaged in addressing local post office challenges, and that it has no plans, at this time, to engage with the Postal Service to address them.
Shroll did note that the commissioners are hoping to speak to Colorado’s senators and representatives about the issues at a National Association of Counties in February, “making sure they are aware of the issues with the USPS at the local level in our county; Simply more resources are needed including people and capital improvements.”
For the Postal Service, Boxrud wrote in his statement that “We continue to monitor staffing and we flex our available resources, augmenting from other locations around the region as necessary.”
In addition to attempting change in their own localities, both Vail and Avon have also been part of a collective effort by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns to address greater challenges.
The Colorado Association of Ski Towns — which represents 40 municipalities, counties and resort associations in Colorado — has been monitoring the situation with the Postal Service for over a decade now. In Eagle County, Vail and Avon are both part of the association.
In October 2021, the president of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, Dara MacDonald, wrote a letter to Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, calling for “a systematic change in the way the USPS operates in our mountain communities.”
“The inadequate level of USPS service has been of concern in mountain communities for many years and CAST has engaged on this issue for over a decade,” MacDonald wrote in the letter.
The letter cites a number of challenges facing many of these post offices including delivery times of two to three weeks to arrive in post office boxes; average wait times of 30 to 45 minutes; insufficient numbers of PO boxes and parcel boxes to accommodate demand.
“There aren’t that many issues that rise to the level of CAST putting together a joint letter from all the ski communities, but this was certainly something that resonated for everybody,” Robson said.
In response to the letter, Bennet and Hickenlooper did reach out to the U.S. Postal Service and received a response from Cory Brown, a Postal Service government relations representative.
In the response, Brown wrote that Colorado-Wyoming district officials “assured us that they are working to address the concerns raised by the local municipal authorities.”
The letter goes on to state that “they are establishing a monthly videoconference meeting to maintain the lines of communication between district postal officials and representatives from Western Slope communities.”
The letter also references Gypsum — which, interestingly, is not a part of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns — and says that the Postal Service district officials will conduct a site visit there, as well as in Crested Butte “to assess the facilities.”
According to Smith Hymes, Bennet also had a recent meeting with the U.S. Postal Service on Thursday, Jan. 13. Kate Oehl, the state deputy communications director for Bennet’s office, said that following this meeting with the U.S. Postal Service, Bennet’s office will continue to address these issues for mountain communities.
Moving forward, Smith Hymes hopes that this collective effort will lead to “real solutions and better funding levels.”
“The ultimate goal is that the U.S. Postal Service is appropriately funded to serve the communities they’re supposed to serve,” she said.
While Rietmann said he was told by the Postal Service that problems need to be addressed individually by municipalities, he is hopeful that this collective effort will also bring some change.
“Municipalities, county commissioners, our congressional delegation, and membership organizations like CAST (Colorado Association of Ski Towns) have an obligation to listen to their constituents and communicate the collective concerns they hear along to the USPS,” he said. “Collective action will highlight the issue and perhaps drive attention within USPS to getting them solved, but the solutions at the community level will all need to be tailored to the problems that exist at each location.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Wednesday, Feb. 2 to include a comment from Senator Michael Bennet’s office regarding the Jan. 13. meeting between his office and the U.S. Postal Service.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.