By Debby Woodin
A change in the way mail is delivered in the hardest-hit area of Joplin’s tornado zone has sparked complaints by some residents and a grievance by union postal workers.
U.S. Postal Service authorities have decided to eliminate door or porch delivery in that part of the disaster zone where expedited debris removal, or EDR, took place. A decision is pending about mail practices in the rest of the disaster area — where houses were damaged but not destroyed and many have since been repaired.
“The postal service is working with city leaders to install curbline boxes in some places or neighborhood collection boxes — a central form of delivery — in some places,” said Richard Watkins, a postal spokesman in Kansas City.
Cluster boxes have been installed at 16th and 22nd streets on Texas Avenue, at 17th and 18th streets on Connecticut Avenue, and on 25th Street at Connor Avenue and between Empire and Annie Baxter avenues.
Duane Graham, a retired postal carrier and secretary of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch No. 366, said a union grievance over the change has been filed and is being reviewed. He said it will take public pressure to keep door delivery in place in the tornado zone if that’s what residents want.
City officials said they granted permission only for temporary cluster mailboxes to be installed, not a permanent change in delivery. But postal officials are unapologetic, saying the decision is theirs and not the city’s.
Safe and secure
Watkins said collection boxes serve several houses and are locked with outgoing mail slots and parcel lockers. Residents who receive mail and parcels in those centralized boxes get a key to access their mail.
Watkins said centralized delivery offers security as well as efficiency in an area where there are not many houses yet.
“It’s far more secure for customers, not just for incoming mail, but for those outgoing checks and gift cards” that people mail. He said mailboxes on individual porches in the EDR zone are vulnerable to theft, something the postal service doesn’t want to happen at a time when people are receiving important items such as insurance documents and checks.
“As Joplin rebuilds, we want to make sure we are in communication with our customers and working with the city going forward,” he added.
But, city officials say the postal service has not exactly been cooperative. Dave Hunt, a traffic engineer for the city of Joplin, said the post office did not notify the city of the change. He said city officials first learned of it when a resident called with a complaint.
The post office set up a portable centralized mailbox, called a cluster mailbox, on the back of Keith Grebe’s property, 2736 E. 15th St. The purpose was to serve people who live on the streets behind him near 16th Street and Texas Avenue.
But Grebe had no idea what it was when it first showed up on the city easement at the back of his lot about a month ago.
“A box appeared on the roadway; no one had said anything about it,” Grebe said. “It is on city property — the easement — but it is right (in front of) where I intended to build a gate to the back of my property. It wasn’t identified.”
He tried to find out what it was by calling the city and the post office, and received no information. He hauled it into his garage until he could determine what it was and who had placed it there. He also ran an ad in the “lost and found” section of the newspaper.
He finally heard from an official with the post office, he said, who informed him that that removing a mailbox, considered federal property, is a felony.
He said when he asked about post office plans, “I got a slightly different story. I was told they are looking at putting these up in order to cut costs. They said they will still deliver to older people and people who cannot get out but they were looking at doing this in all of the tornado area. It was never presented to me as a security measure. That seems a little unusual. In my area there are a lot of houses.”
Hunt said the city, upon learning of the placement of the boxes, sent the post office a letter. He said he told post office officials that placement of any type of box next to a street required city permission, so that it does not interfere with the line of sight for motorists or create a traffic hazard when people are stopping at them to get the mail.
“We also told them they need concurrence in the neighborhood,” Hunt said. “They need the permission of the people who are to be affected if the mail isn’t going to be delivered to their house anymore, along with the concurrence of the property owner (where the box is located),” Hunt said.
Both Hunt and Joplin City Planner Troy Bolander said the city intends for the change to be temporary until houses and businesses have been rebuilt.
“From our view, this has not been approved as a permanent solution,” Bolander said.
Chris Robertson, supervisor of customer service for the Joplin postal service, said the city has the authority over the location but not the change in the type of delivery.
“The city approved the current locations on a temporary basis. The actual change in the mode of delivery is within the authority of the postal service.”
In some areas, once houses are rebuilt, there could be curbside mailbox delivery instead of cluster boxes. But delivery to the porch by a walking mail carrier is gone permanently, he said.
“It will either be by the curbside box or the cluster box in that area that has been totally wiped out (by the tornado),” Robertson said.
Said Bolander: “From our view, this has not been approved as a permanent solution.”
Asked if the post office notified those who live in the EDR zone or other nearby property owners, Robertson said a press release or public service notice was sent out last fall to television and radio stations, but none was sent to the Globe.
Robertson said residents who rebuild should contact the post office before installing a mail receptacle. “If they have new construction homes, they need to double-check before they put in a box.”
Union secretary Graham believes the changes violate postal regulations.
“In this case, there are clear regulations on these modes of delivery,” said Graham, including a requirement that those affected be notified and agree to the change.
“Customer signatures must be obtained prior to any conversion,” Graham said, citing the language in the postal manual. “In single-family neighborhoods, each owner must sign. Owners who do not agree must be allowed to retain their mode of delivery,” Graham said.
The postal service can decide to deliver by curbside or cluster mailboxes in new subdivisions that have not had door delivery before, but cannot change it in areas where new homes or businesses are built within a block of door or porch delivery.
“Out on Texas (Avenue), those were all door delivery,” Graham said.
More conversions are planned:
• Along 18th Street at Kansas Avenue and between Massachusetts and St. Louis avenues.
• Along 22nd Street between Pennsylvania and Kentucky avenues, between Park Place and New Jersey avenues, at Delaware Avenue, and between Maryland and Patterson and Arizona and Highview avenues.
• On 23rd Street between Moffett and Sergeant and Pearl and Wall avenues.
• On 24th Street between Missouri and Iowa, Illinois and Indiana and at Kansas avenues.
To contact Chris Robertson, the customer service postman, call 417-623-6176.