U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp brought U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to Williston on Saturday to discuss mail delivery service and efforts to improve it.
Carper serves as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, of which Heitkamp is a member.
The committee has worked on legislation to make changes to the U.S. Postal Service, specifically to include provisions that protect rural communities, Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp discussed her Fix My Mail initiative which she launched in January. Fix My Mail has enabled North Dakotans to speak up if they have encountered extensive delivery times or had to deal with other problems with their postal service. More than 140 North Dakotans from all across the state sent in stories about everything from customers missing prescription drug packages to issues of recruitment and retention of postal employees.
“Since joining the Senate, I have heard from hundreds of North Dakotans about troubles they have faced getting mail delivered or accessing a post office,” Heitkamp said. “Through my Fix My Mail effort, I have heard of seniors not receiving their medication on time, post offices not being open enough hours to serve their communities, and extremely challenging working conditions for Postal Service employees.
Heitkamp has heard from North Dakotans about a variety of problems with mail delivery and service. The main themes included not receiving bills and prescription medication on time, letters not being delivered to the correct address, letters not being delivered and disappear in the online tracking system, mail forwarding is ineffective, USPS is having employment retention and hiring issues resulting in challenging working conditions and post
offices are not open during regular hours.
During Carper's tenure as chairman of the committee, postal reform has been a majority priority, he said.
“As we work toward the enactment of meaningful postal reform legislation, our focus can’t just be on cuts; it has to be on ensuring that the Postal Service is relevant and thriving not just now but in the years to come,” Carper said.
In February, Heitkamp helped advance postal reform out of the committee after the panel adopted changes she made to the legislation that will improve mail service in rural communities in North Dakota.
“It hasn't been without it's slings and arrows,” Heitkamp said, adding postal reform was and remains a contentious issue that has attracted vastly different approaches. “There are things in this postal reform that I don't like.”
Still the senators believe there has been progress and that the legislation will pass this year, Carper said.
“If there was ever a great place to think about how to deliver mail differently, it's western North Dakota,” Heitkamp said. “Williston is ground zero for the new post office.”
Scott Boyer, the IT director at Williams County, said the postal service in Williston was improving but has difficulty keeping up with expansion.
“They're just keeping their head above water right now—but that's just everybody,” Boyer said.
Drew Aliperto, vice president of Western Area Operations for the USPS, said his statement was fair but proactive remedies were in place including the opening of a second post office location is set to open in June.
USPS approved the lease in March for 5,880-square-foot site in the Badlands Town Center, which will be in addition to the downtown office, according to a previous article in the Williston Herald.
Tammy Dunlop, postmaster in Williston, suggested that the new facility in the northern part of town would greatly improve services for customers.
The facility will feature 1,400 PO boxes, a full retail window and a self-service kiosk, Dunlop said.
The USPS plans to enhance its technology capabilities to better serve the state and region. It plans to implement mobile point of sale devices and self-service kiosks help improve customer service, Aliperto said.
“This is not going to be your grandmother's postal service,” Carper said.
The senators asked the roundtable about recruitment and retention in the Williston area.
In November, the resignation of four workers led to struggles to get Williams County residents their mail on time.
The USPS has since focused on career employees rather than flexible, temporary positions, Aliperto said. Recruitment and retention were a main problem facing the USPS, and his staff has looked at some incentives in the recruitment process to attract people to become carriers.
The Postal Service has set up a contract postal unit in Watford City and the Village Post Office in Tioga, along with other improvements, including placing a hold on consolidation of the Minot Mail Processing Center, according to the Williston Herald.
Although Williston has been successful in its recruiting efforts, Watford City will need double the amount of employees within the next two to three years.
Mitzi Moe, publisher at the Williston Herald, voiced financial complaints about costs to the newspaper.
Newspapers don't generally make revenue for the USPS, Aliperto said, but agreed with Carper's opinion that reading the news is a still a staple for citizens.
“Without them [the post office, the hospital and the newspaper], if they’re not in the community, the community suffers,” Moe said.