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Published: Monday, 3/7/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Mail's snail pace has senders in Lima area irate

458-prefix letters come to Toledo

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Terry Robinson sorts mail at the U.S. Post Office downtown. Some say the consolidation got off to a slow start because the Toledo facility was understaffed and overwhelmed with mail from elections and the holidays. Terry Robinson sorts mail at the U.S. Post Office downtown. Some say the consolidation got off to a slow start because the Toledo facility was understaffed and overwhelmed with mail from elections and the holidays.
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A slim crowd at Lima Harley-Davidson's annual "Black Saturday" sale after Thanksgiving was the first clue.

Reggie Truss says he must have specifics on problems so he and his staff can investigate them. Reggie Truss says he must have specifics on problems so he and his staff can investigate them.
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When the motorcycle dealership's copy of its holiday newsletter arrived in the mailbox just a week before Christmas, they knew for sure that the 5,000 newsletters filled with sales promotions that were mailed out Oct. 29 simply did not arrive on time.

"We've been 26 years in business, and for 26 years that has been our main means of communication," marketing director Tara Joyce said.

No more. Since the mailing debacle, the business has turned to e-mail, she said.

More than four months after the U.S. Postal Service began shipping mail 80 miles from Lima, Ohio, to Toledo to be scanned, postmarked, and sorted for carriers, complaints of delivery problems in the 458-prefix ZIP code district have not abated. The problems have ranged from ridiculous to downright expensive -- election flyers being delivered after Election Day, bill payments taking so long to get to their destinations that customers are hit with late fees, and checks in the mail that never arrived.

"This has truly been as bad an experience as could possibly have occurred," Lima Mayor David Berger said. "We're still getting reports of people who are getting mail delivered to them that was mailed before the holidays. I had one e-mail from a gentleman whose payment to his insurance company did not get delivered and as a result he's got $47,000 in medical bills now. These are real issues because you're talking not days, but weeks and weeks and months of delays."

U.S. Postal Service officials concede there were "a couple of bumps" during the phased-in consolidation of the Lima mail processing center with the facility in Toledo starting in October. They cite an insufficient number of workers in Toledo coupled with a higher-than-expected volume of holiday mail.

Still, they defend the decision to consolidate the Lima sorting center with the facility in Toledo, which also handles the 434, 435, and 436-prefix ZIP code districts.

The move is projected to save more than $2.2 million a year, and saving money is foremost on the postal service's agenda.

"In our last fiscal year, we lost $8.5 billion. Our mail volume in the last five years has declined by about 43 billion pieces," David Walton, spokesman for the Postal Service's eastern area, said.

"We reached an all-time high in 2006 of 213 billion pieces, and in 2010, we were at 170 billion pieces. … For every 3 billion pieces of mail that we lose, that's $1 billion in revenue."

More people pay bills online, fewer send letters, and increasingly, businesses are using the Internet for advertising and promotions. Closing the mail-sorting facility in Lima was one way to cut in light of the declining mail volume, Mr. Walton said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana) understands that concept.

Ray Yonkura, Mr. Jordan's chief of staff, said, "When it comes to government consolidation, streamlining, and saving money, we're all for it. In fact, we've been one of the loudest voices in Washington for finding ways to save federal money."

But when the congressman's office began getting flooded with calls from constituents about erratic mail delivery after the consolidation, he stepped in.

Mr. Jordan asked the Office of Inspector General to review the consolidation to reveal what went wrong, whether the hundreds of complaints his office received were legitimate, and what could be done to fix things.

"When talk of consolidation first started, I told then-Postmaster General John Potter that I am all for saving money, but consolidation must not affect customer service," Mr. Jordan said.

"He pledged it would not. Clearly, that promise has not been kept. [Last] week, I met with new Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to convey to him the concerns of our constituents, and I will keep the pressure on the Postal Service to make fixing the mail problems our region faces a top priority."

Agapi Doulaveris, director of communications for the inspector general, said the audit of the Lima consolidation is expected to be completed this month.

Mayor Berger said he's not expecting much from the review.

"I would have to say we've completely lost faith in any process of accountability for this," he said.

Tom Peterman, Sr., said he'd be out of business if he ran his expediting service in Wapakoneta like the Postal Service.

He said he mailed a check on Oct. 26 to one of his drivers who lives just a few blocks away and later paid $23 to have the bank stop payment on the check, which to this day has not been delivered to the recipient or returned to sender.

"It's just mind-boggling," Mr. Peterman said. "They're kind of crying wolf because people are using e-mails and paying bills online and so on and so forth, but they're driving you to it."

Mr. Walton said he could not respond to complaints about mail delivery without specific information. He urged customers with complaints to contact USPS Consumer Affairs at 513-684-5794.

"We apologize for any service-related issues that some customers may have experienced," he said. "Consolidating mail processing operations is a big undertaking. We had to process mail while we were moving equipment, changing routes, employees that did transfer ... were trying to adjust to a new environment. It's a whole new process, but at the same time I'd like to point out that the mail never stopped."

During a tour of the Toledo mail processing center on South St. Clair Street last week, manager Reggie Truss said the facility is "highly accountable" for how it performs.

"When I first got here as plant manager, my goal was to wow the Toledo customer, and then we gained Lima customers as our service base, so my goal hasn't changed. I want to wow the Lima customers also," he said.

"I read the feedback. I see the feedback, and I sit down with my staff, and the specific complaints we address and we investigate, but they have to be specific. The ones that are general, I can't gather facts on, I can't do much with," he said.

Arnold Cowell, president of American Postal Workers Union Local 170 in Toledo, said the union never likes to see postal facilities close, but the work force, which includes some of the displaced Lima workers, is dedicated. He said the plant was clearly understaffed when it began processing the mail from the Lima area and the timing was unfortunate, both with the flood of election mailings and then Christmas.

"Some of the bad publicity the Toledo plant has gotten is unjust," Mr. Cowell said. "I think we do a good job."

While consumers find it difficult to understand why a letter mailed in Lima to an address in Lima has to travel to Toledo before it's delivered, Mr. Truss said it's more cost-effective for the Postal Service to sort all of the mail so that carriers have the mail for their route "in hand and in order."

"To you, it's just that one letter that goes next door," Mr. Truss said.

"To me, it's you times a million so now I have a million people with this letter that just goes next door. I have to do something with these million pieces, so I'm going to put them in order for all the carriers I service out of all those offices."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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