Colorado mountain towns are exploring a lawsuit against the US Postal Service over poor service

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
City Hall in Crested Butte on the Western Slope, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

Christmas cards were delivered in late January. More than 13,000 parcels arrived in one day at a small-town post office. And lines continue to last several hours long. 

According to the Town of Crested Butte, these are just a few of the issues the U.S. Postal Service caused in rural communities across Colorado’s mountains. Now, the town is leading the way in a possible lawsuit against the agency, with the backing of Avon, Buena Vista, Parachute, Silverthorne, Snowmass Village and Steamboat Springs.

Crested Butte has retained services from the Denver-based law firm Kaplan Kirsh Rockwell to explore possible legal action. At this point, the affected communities “are just investigating,” Crested Butte Town Manager Dara MacDonald said. She expects them to start mulling next steps in the coming weeks.

What they want is “what all Americans have come to expect from the Postal Service,” MacDonald said. “We want routine, regular, reliable mail delivery.”

Instead, mail service has been severely disrupted in these small communities, she said. And each town faces different challenges.

According to MacDonald, Silverthorne has seen prolonged delays in mail delivery, leading to late social security checks and other vital mail. Steamboat Springs has experienced “stoppages altogether” in some areas.

In Crested Butte, like many rural communities, people cannot receive home delivery of mail or packages and must come into the post office, instead. However, that post office location lacks parcel lockers. That means people line up to retrieve their packages, even if they have a post office box.

“And quite often those lines can be an hour or more, and that's ebbed and flowed over the years,” MacDonald said. “But it's definitely been exacerbated with the pandemic.”

That’s when the rise of online shopping put an additional strain on an already fragile postal system in her town and others. MacDonald said Crested Butte is one of many communities that has a “last mile” contract with shipping companies like FedEx and retailers such as Amazon. This allows packages to be dropped off at the post office instead of being delivered to people’s homes, potentially creating a big backlog. 

MacDonald said part of the legal effort might be to encourage USPS to “move away” from these national contracts and beef up staffing and support at local post offices. However, MacDonald acknowledges that the high cost of living in mountain towns makes it difficult for the Postal Service to recruit and retain workers.

She calls her local postal employees “amazing.”

“They show up and do the best they can every day,” she said. “But it's just an overwhelming battle that they're facing.” 

The issue has received the attention of some politicians, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, but any changes so far have been short-lived. MacDonald and others hope this legal effort will make the difference — finally.