March 28, 2005 There may soon be a light at the end of the tunnel for disgruntled St. Thomas Postal service customers. According to several U.S. Post Office customers, the island's postal service has been deteriorating for several months.
That downhill trend is about to be reversed, Robert Allen, St. Thomas' new postmaster said Saturday. Allen took over the post the first of March, replacing acting Postmaster Lou Alston, who has been transferred to Puerto Rico.
Though only 41, Allen has an impressive 20-year USPS background. He is a customer service analyst, he has held posts as north New Jersey district postmaster, and customer service manger for the Jersey City jurisdiction.
"The postal service chooses the person best equipped to handle the job," he said of his appointment to St. Thomas. "They wanted a change, so they went outside the district," he said.
And Allen has his hands full.
The owner of one mailbox service told the Source last week that she is on the verge of going out of business if the postal delivery service doesn't improve.
"I have been in this business for 15 years," said Nisky Mailbox owner Sharon Hughes. "The postal delivery service has deteriorated so much in the last eight months that I'm thinking about going out of business. The service is horrendous. I get chewed out by clients constantly about their magazine, packages and letters arriving months late, people threatening to leave me. One lady accused me of stealing her magazines."
Hughes has between 500 and 600 customers. "We used to have three bins of magazines a day, and I had fewer customers," she said. " Now, I have this many customers, and about one bin a day. She said, "Yesterday I received a piece of mail from Florida postmarked Dec. 22, 2004 and this is March."
And Hughes is not alone. Becky Luscz, Frenchtown restaurant owner, said she received a phone call from a vendor on March 15 wondering where his check was. She had mailed the check on Feb. 22. He called back later in the day to say he had just received it, Luscz said.
Luscz also said she had canceled a subscription to Orbit magazine, which carries all satellite dish listings, last year. "I paid first class postage to get it on time, and, still, I would get it a month late when it was out of date. I don't know what the problem is." Luscz said.
Neither does attorney Joseph Mingolla, who did not mince words about his service. "It's appalling," he said last week. Mingolla said he subscribes to more than 20 magazines. "I subscribe to 12 car and motor cycling magazines. I'm lucky if I get seven of those. My legal journals are always more than a month late.
Mingolla said he cancelled his subscription to Entertainment Weekly, after seeing it on the stands weeks before he received his copy. "Harpers, Architectural Digest, everything is always late now. For some reason, Newsweek arrives on time. I got a letter postmarked from last October yesterday. A business letter."
Allen said the weekly news magazines Time and Newsweek which have a large subscription base in the district are handled differently. "Those magazines sort their own mail and carrier route it, so it goes right through. Weekly magazines, such as the New Yorker, which has few subscribers in the district, are subject to the vagaries of postal routing between the hub at Jacksonville, Fla., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
That might be the answer for Ron Gabrielson, who wondered what has happened to his subscription to The Week, a new news magazine. "I got two issues in January, and nothing since," he said. "I'd like to know what's happening. What's the point of getting a weekly, news magazine months late?"
Allen said for the past three weeks, he has been observing the local operation. "I have to learn what is going on before I can take steps to improve the service," he said. One of the problems, he said, is that the St. Thomas district service delays were not being reported. All mail has a 5 percent error margin, but 95 percent of the time it should flow smoothly, he said.
Allen has developed an outline of an action plan, which he submitted Monday to the Puerto Rico District. "The problem here is logistics," Allen said. The St. Thomas district mail is routed through Jacksonville, Fla., then to Puerto Rico, and then to St. Thomas, he said. However, it is not automatically sorted in Puerto Rico, and that is a bottleneck.
Allen said he hopes to have the mail automatically sorted in Puerto Rico before arriving on St. Thomas, which will vastly improve delivery. "One sorting machine can do the work of 100 individuals," he pointed out.
Mail going to St. Croix from St. Thomas is now automatically sorted in Puerto Rico, he said, but he emphasized that inter-island mail on St. Thomas, "stays in St. Thomas."
In the past three weeks, Allen has accomplished getting the mail to St. Thomas one hour earlier from Puerto Rico, at 5 a.m., which, in turn, gets it distributed earlier.
Allen said a common problem is the public's perception of parcel post. "It says on parcel post packages, that delivery can take four to six weeks. Parcel post is the slowest mail. People shouldn't use the service if they are in hurry." Postal employees in the states have been known to tell customers it takes only four days to the Virgin Islands, several residents have noted. "The employees are referring to mail within the continental U.S., not the Virgin Islands where it comes by boat on a trailer."
Allen also said he will address window hours. "I want to see if we can have the windows open later to accommodate persons who get off work at 5 p.m.," he said.
Allen gave the Source a tour of the massive Sugar Estate Post Office. "We handle 2,800 packages a day," he said, "500 go to the Veterans Drive station alone." He pointed out an area stuffed with huge boxes. "All those boxes contain magazines to be sorted," he said.
Allen said communication between the St. Thomas and Puerto Rico districts has been a problem. "If you don't tell them what you want, they don't know. You have to come up with a plan," he said. "They have no idea, you have to tell them your needs."
Allen said Puerto Rico also has a new face, Pablo Claudio, the Caribbean district manger, whom he looks foward to working with. "He personally brought me to St. Thomas, and he has expressed a commitment to making things better," Allen said.
If anything, Allen seems to be licking his chops, as he looks forward to improving the local mail service. "I came to do well here," he said. "I have never not done well."
He points to strange looking holes in his office walls. "See those," he said. "That's where old plaques used to hang, for this or that award. The employees say 'Mr. Allen, where are all the plaques?' I tell them they aren't up yet. Those empty places are there awaiting the awards that will come."
Though Allen's purview is St. Thomas, it affects St. John as well. "I help with St. John when I can," he said. "I work with Tiffany Gumbs, who is the St. John postal supervisor." Allen said he is pleased with improvements he has instituted so far which affect St. John. "I have already had phone calls remarking on the improved service," he said.
Cidney Hamling, owner Connections of St. John, which offers postal box services, was surprised to hear Allen's comment. "I have been in this business for 23 years. In that time, I have become pretty savvy about postal service, and in the past six months it has steadily gotten worse," she said Monday.
"We have priority mail being delivered two and three weeks after it was posted. I have copied all the envelopes when sent and when receive
d. Last Thursday I got a parcel post package marked March 2, and Saturday I got a priority package marked earlier, which arrived after the parcel post. It's being held up in Puerto Rico. They said when they got this scanner that mail would be improved, but it has only gotten worse.
"I can tell you this Saturday we got 10 mail bags or boxes all of the sudden, December and January magazines included."
Allen said he has nothing to do with the St. Croix service, but he did have a comment. "They have four postmasters," he said. "We have one postmaster, and we generate the most revenue, we have more routes to cover." St. Croix Postmaster Louis Jackson had left work Monday afternoon, and was not available for comment.
Allen said he wasn't aware of any problems on St. Croix. Mary Simpson, Southerland Tours travel agency owner, and Ginny Angus, owner of St. Croix Marine, have been in business on the island for years, and both say they have no delivery problems they receive mail and magazines on time. David Stevens, Veterans Drive station manger, said several weeks ago that magazine deliveries are a constant problem. He said the problem was due to " routing delays," but he could offer no solution to the problem. That problem is covered in Allen's action plan.
Though he was reluctant to put a time line on improvements, Allen said, "I assure you, we in this district are going to get things done."
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