PALMER -- An easygoing, old-fashioned pace is part of the charm of this city forged from a 1930s New Deal farm colony.
But short staffing slowed the pace of Palmer's post office to the point that fuming locals were forced to wait in seemingly unmoving lines for a half-hour or more -- sometimes much more.
The mailing public of Palmer then proceeded to get the attention of a state legislator and U.S. senator.
"I am requesting your help in a federal matter that is affecting my constituency on a daily basis -- and so, is affecting your constituency as well," state Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, wrote in a November letter to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "As one of the fastest growing populations in Alaska, the residents of the greater Palmer area are being serviced inadequately by the U.S. Post Office at 500 S Cobb Street, Palmer, Alaska 99645."
Hughes said she witnessed the delays firsthand when checking her post office box.
"Constituents have called my office, stopped me at the post office and emailed and Facebooked me regarding what are now typical 30-minute-plus wait times to reach the counter," she wrote. "The long lines and delayed service are occurring every day of the week. Traditionally, the long lines have only occurred in the days leading up to Christmas; now it is year-round."
Hughes asked Murkowski to help turn things around at the post office, with enough retail clerks to staff four counter openings instead of two and expanded hours.
Now the U.S. Postal Service is bringing in a new postmaster general at Palmer starting Tuesday, according to a Postal Service spokesman. The prior postmaster retired and an interim replacement was filling in, Seattle-based spokesman Ernie Swanson said in an email. The new postmaster, Oklahoman Richard R. Smith, is authorized to hire as many as five new employees, though Hughes' office puts the number to be hired at three.
"We're doing what we can to fill the need and we realize it's been difficult for customers," Swanson said this week. Yes, the agency did hear from Murkowski, he said.
Murkowski's response was "very prompt and her staff was incredibly helpful on this issue," Hughes said in a statement emailed by staffer Stuart Krueger.
Sen. Murkowski did get involved after hearing about the post office problems, her spokesman said this week. But the Postal Service was already hearing complaints and making changes in response to the situation, said Matthew Felling, Murkowski's communications director.
"We communicated the concerns of the constituents to the Alaska branches of the U.S. Postal Service," Felling said. "If we succeeded at anything it would be at adding to the sense of urgency. But the Postal Service was already sending out feelers."
That's probably because that agency was getting an earful.
By December, with the holiday shipping season underway, doing business at the Palmer post office was like entering purgatory -- you walked in without knowing when you'd walk out.
Locals wary of burning upwards of 90 minutes in line drove by to scope out the situation before coming in. At least until recently, what they saw was a long line snaking through the glass-walled retail office past bays of post office boxes, sometimes nearly to the back wall.
One Fishhook-area resident told friends and family to just stop sending packages. Another Palmer-area resident considered getting an Eagle River address just to get mail there.
Some Palmer customers say they now rely on UPS or other private shipping companies to mail packages, though they still have to come to the post office to fetch boxes shipped there.
"I go to UPS," said downtown Palmer resident Diana Zitmanis, grudgingly picking up something at the post office Friday morning. "I'd rather pay the extra five bucks."
Nobody seems to blame the people working at the post office now. Even as the wait started stacking up Friday morning, an employee recognized one customer who'd left the line in frustration and popped out of a back room with her package.
Fully staffed, the post office employs five clerks plus one relief clerk, Swanson said. They're not all working the counter at the same time, though -- some work different shifts, or work in the back putting up post office box mail or doing other duties.
Palmer has had vacancies, he acknowledged, but new hires should be coming on within six weeks and temporary fill-ins from other post offices are taking up some of the slack in the meantime. More parcel lockers will be added in the lobby so customers won't have to go up to the counter to pick up mailed packages.
Even with the recent changes, Friday morning's wait was still too much for Debra Renner. Her little granddaughter and sick daughter were waiting in the car.
"I've been trying to collect this for maybe a week," Renner said, gesturing at a yellow package slip in her hand.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing