Mail sorting raises concerns in Alaska community

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2013 3:52 PM

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — For one Alaska city, it's not rain, sleet or snow that's affecting mail delivery. It's a broken postal sorting machine that has prompted officials to fly letters and packages more than 200 miles away to be separated and flown back for delivery.

That has left Ketchikan residents to complain about mail getting delivered up to five days late.

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson said Ketchikan's sorting equipment gave out and it's not practical to replace it right now. He said the agency believes it can still provide customers with a good level of service under the current arrangement that calls for mail to be sorted in Juneau.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich called on the agency to review its arrangement, saying it did not appear that whoever made the decision had adequate understanding of weather in southeast Alaska or took into account for the possibility of aircraft breakdowns.

The mail still provides an important lifeline between many Alaska communities not connected to the road system and the outside world, providing a way to receive letters, bills, medicine and other goods and supplies.

Juneau and Ketchikan, for example, are accessible only by air and water. Inclement weather could wreak havoc on flights and deliveries.

The decision — which Swanson called a permanent solution — has raised concerns among local officials, including Ketchikan Gateway Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst, who wrote to Begich that delays could be even longer in bad weather.

Bockhorst said the borough sends out more than 33,000 tax and utility bills each year and a number of residents have had to pay late fees because of "significant delays in postal processing."

While some people might try to use the mail situation as an excuse for not paying on time, Bockhorst said Tuesday that local officials have met with some residents and looked at their past payment histories.

He said the number of late payments has correlated with the change in mail handling "so we maintain it does have an impact."

Swanson said Ketchikan mail goes to Juneau on an evening flight and returns for delivery the following morning.

Bockhorst told Begich the change began a few months ago. Swanson could not immediately say when it started or what the cost might be, compared to replacing the equipment.