LEAD — Replacing individual mailboxes in Lead with new, 16-unit boxes will improve mail efficiency and carriers' safety, postal officials say, but some Lead residents aren't convinced the boxes are an improvement overall.
Steve Carter, manager of postal operations for West River, explained to the Lead City Commission Monday that the United States Postal Service is in dire straits financially, facing delivery declines in the billions, maxed-out borrowing and an expected default on its $5.5 billion health benefits program.
"Officials cannot say for certain when our money will dry out, but it will. We know it," Carter said.
With electronic mail, receipts and billing becoming more and more common, fewer customers are using the postal service and the agency is looking for ways to cut costs and improve its service.
Carter said installing cluster boxes around Lead is one way to cut costs. Cluster boxes are less costly than door-to-door delivery, saving about $195 per individual, per year. Each cluster box will service 16 homes and the postal service is planning to install 16 of them around town, saving around $49,920 per year.
The boxes are also expected to improve safety for on-foot mail carriers in town, especially in the winter. Some mailboxes are currently placed dangerously close to the road, while sidewalks near others are in serious need of repair. The cluster boxes would be placed farther away from traffic to increase safety.
"I think we really need to look at the safety aspects of this,” Carter said. “We know that there are certain areas in the city of Lead that have some challenges and it's not up to us to fix those ... but we also know that we have alternatives, and this is a viable alternative."
But the idea of cluster boxes did not sit well with everyone who attended the commission meeting. Commissioner Denise Parker said that placing mailboxes away from the homes of Lead's older citizens would be a huge inconvenience, especially for those with health difficulties.
"I am deeply, deeply concerned about the number of elderly that we have in the community," Parker said, adding that many of them have somebody else deliver their mail to them every day. "We have a large number of elderly in our community, and they're not getting any younger."
Carter said that elderly or those with disabilities who cannot get their mail on their own will be able to apply for hardship deliveries, where mail will still be brought to their door. Those permits would be issued only if certain conditions were met — such as nobody else living in the home who can get the mail — and last one year before needing to be renewed.
"We don't want any unnecessary hardship on anyone in your community,” Carter said.
In most cases, he added, the boxes would not be placed farther than a block from the customers' homes.
Parker asked if there were any alternative for the city to consider besides the cluster box system. Carter said that while the Postal Service is accepting feedback and adjusting its practices all the time, it is set on cluster boxes for the time being.
Citizens questioned whether any jobs would be lost in the transition, but Carter said they would not.
Parker said she was concerned that installing the cluster boxes was “merely a precursor to potentially closing down our local post office."
Carter said that the Postal Service does indeed want to sell Lead's post office building — but the post office would still operate out of it on lease.
"We do want to sell that building, but we're not going to get rid of our Post Office,” he said. “We would lease that building and only keep the space we need for our Post Office … We want to get away from brick and mortar."
The boxes will not serve everyone in Lead, just areas the Postal Service has identified as high priorities. Affected residents will receive a letter notifying them that the new boxes will be installed.
The timeline for installing all boxes has not been established yet, but at least four should be installed before the snow flies this winter — the highest priority areas being Alert Street; Gold and High streets; Spark and Summit streets; and Gwen, Columbus and Lower Spark streets.