USPS mail calamities spur street protests in Colorado town where residents must pay to receive letters

Goat cheese rotting in a backroom.  Delayed heart medications. Christmas cards delivered in summer. The postal service called for in the U.S. Constitution isn’t what it used to be.

Those squat blue mailboxes on streets around the country increasingly go missing, as email usage expands, down from 360,000 boxes in 2002 to 139,866, federal records show. And understaffing has led to delayed deliveries and wrap-around post office lines, reduced hours and mistakes — often felt acutely in rural areas, where more residents demand benefits of online shopping.

Frustrations reached a breakpoint this week in Colorado with residents of Buena Vista, at the base of the Sawatch mountains, taking to the streets in protest. The U.S. Postal Service has been charging them for post office boxes to receive mail (about $166 a year depending on size), while people living outside town boundaries in Chaffee County and in other towns receive direct mail delivery for free.

“There has to be something done about postal service in rural America, because people rely on it for delivery of their medications, getting their bills, being notified of their property tax assessment or that they need to verify their voter registration or their driver license is about to expire,” said Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker, who lives in Buena Vista and hears a grocery aisle chorus of laments about mail.

“Continued deterioration” of postal service over several decades signals to rural Americans “that we don’t matter as much” as city dwellers, Baker said.

“Not everybody’s on the internet, and even if they were, internet service is so unreliable in many rural areas that people may not receive those messages,” he said.

Whether residents are Republicans or Democrats, “everybody wants mail service fixed. This is further undermining confidence in institutions that were once mainstays of the Great American Experiment. That’s what really concerns me. Mail delivery, yeah, the shortcomings are major annoyances. But what is the long-term damage to our culture and society?”

U.S. Postal Service officials maintain every home has access to mail and have promised to fix problems, aided by President Joe Biden’s recent signature on an overhaul to save $50 billion over a decade on employee health costs and to transparently track delivery delays. Biden called mail “as essential as it ever was.” Responding to Denver Post queries this week, postal officials said they’ll re-evaluate whether no-fee boxes should be available in Buena Vista and Crested Butte, and put in bigger post offices where populations have grown.

Before the telegraph, telephones, texting and email, the postal service provided a main means of communication and the Supreme Court has deemed mail essential for democratic self-rule. The Constitution gives Congress power to establish post offices. “Universal access” to mail for all citizens is legally required. But postal officials in recent years cut back on post office hours and extra deliveries and they removed high-speed mail-sorting machines in several states, raising concerns about handling of absentee and mail-in election ballots.

This week’s flare-up in Buena Vista (pop. 2,500) reflects festering frustrations around Colorado as residents of small towns — including Crested Butte, Gypsum, Kiowa, Avon and others — chafe over less than optimal service.

Buena Vista postal supervisors initially rebuffed residents, arguing that the town had a choice and opted in a 1997 survey for central delivery, which under agency rules is treated as a basis for charging fees to rent post boxes. But few residents, including some who were in town 25 years ago, remember a survey.

Post office problems can lead to health emergencies, said Gary Cuffe, 68, a Buena Vista resident since 1993 whose work running a gravel pit in neighboring Leadville often requires 12-hour shifts. He had a heart attack and, since 2010, has been relying on a medication provided by Medicare and mailed to him at his post office box.

He pays $166 a year for that box and has instructed senders to include both his street address and his post office box number on all packages containing this medication, to be safe.

But in recent months postal clerks “would just send it back” to the supplier, said Cuffe, who had to borrow from a colleague who takes the same medication.

“I’ve gotta take this every day. It keeps my heart going. It’s a big deal,” Cuffe said. “This is very important. It’s a life-saving medication and I’ve got a family and grandkids to support and I want to stay alive for them. I don’t want another heart attack. This keeps you from having another heart attack.”

Buena Vista residents plan to rally outside the post office on Friday and Saturday and be “a thorn” in agency officials’ side “because we cannot get them to answer their phone,” said Mary Ann Uzelac, 77, a retired public health administrator. “Rural communities are more dependent on the mail than urban communities. We have a limited ability to purchase things, unless we drive 120 miles to Colorado Springs. This is really critical.”

Unpredictably long lines at Buena Vista’s post office — where hours are advertised as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the agency website but services stop around 2 p.m. — render the system for picking up parcels “dysfunctional,” retired consultant Grace Garret said. “Lots of locals don’t have jobs that allow them to wait in line for packages and mail for an hour.” She pointed to a friend who waited in line for 65 minutes this week to pick up four packages. Two containing care products for her and her elderly dog arrived, but two parcels couldn’t be found, forcing her to re-order.

Sentiments have soured. Child care provider Joyce Hansen, 55, decided to try Farmer’s Fridge pre-packaged salads, including a Greek one with feta cheese. She’d understood from Farmer’s Fridge that her package would arrive at the post office on a recent Thursday and re-confirmed before heading to retrieve it. But it wasn’t there.

A day later after work, she went back to the post office — she pays $188 for a slightly bigger box — and saw a yellow slip where there hadn’t been one before — saying her package had arrived and was held behind the post office counter in a backroom. The office was closed.

She knew that by Friday, let alone the weekend, the salad greens, cheeses and other perishables would have spoiled. She didn’t go back for the parcel that next week. “They can smell the stink,” she said. “They don’t answer their phone. ….. What do you do?”

Coloradans in Buena Vista, Crested Butte, Gypsum and other towns appealed to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. A Bennet staffer based in Steamboat Springs for months has been working with Postal Service officials and multiple communities trying to address staffing shortages and delivery problems.

“Coloradans depend on the Postal Service to receive their prescriptions and Social Security checks, connect with loved ones, and cast their ballots,” Bennet said.

The Postal Service Reform Act should help stabilize the postal service financially, he said, leading to “more reliable delivery and service, especially in Colorado’s mountain and rural communities.”

U.S. Postal Service leaders acknowledged difficulties — and they said Colorado will benefit from the reforms, which include guaranteed six-day delivery of mail.

“We are seeking to fill every position and there are no cutbacks. Like lots of other industries, we are struggling to fill jobs,” agency manager of strategic communications David Rupert said.

For sending mail, the iconic blue mailboxes have decreased because letter volumes have decreased — 13.9 billion pieces of mail a year at present, down from 52 billion in 2002, Rupert said. Postal Service documents say boxes that receive fewer than 25 pieces of mail a day must be eliminated.

But “every American has access to mail. Binding the nation is our core mission from the very beginning. That’s the tie that binds commerce, correspondence and in many circumstances election material,” Rupert said.

The norm in thousands of towns nationwide, including hundreds in Colorado, will be mail delivered to a central post office, he said.

In western Colorado towns within an 80-mile radius of Buena Vista, only the residents of Aspen, Leadville, Salida and Vail receive mail delivered directly to homes.

Postal service spokesman James Boxrud said only residents of Crested Butte and Buena Vista are required to pay fees for post office boxes to receive their mail. The Denver Post has heard from residents elsewhere who say fees are charged for boxes to receive mail.

Postal officials will review this situation, including evaluation of who may be eligible for “no fee” post office boxes, Boxrud said. And in Crested Butte and Gypsum, agency officials are looking for new locations to establish post offices with “adequate space needed for these growing communities,” he said. A “suitable-sized” facility already was set up in Avon.

Numerous good postal service jobs are available, Boxrud said, touting benefits. Meantime, understaffing remains a challenge and “we will continue flexing our available resources” and “maximizing” use of current employees while bringing in others from nearby towns where possible to help handle work, he said.

“We are proud of the efforts of postal employees in Colorado and the nation as they define essential public service every day.”

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