September 28, 2011

The Great Post Office Box Race

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

Long lines, congestion and frustration aren’t words that only describe the traffic situation anymore. These words can be applied to situations all around Watford City.
Local businesses have been hit hard by the increasing demands a rising population can bring. The Watford City Post Office is no different.
A year ago, the Watford City Post Office received and processed mail for around 2,500 people. Now, that same branch, a year later, is processing mail for, and servicing, over 6,000 people.
That’s a big jump. Especially, when you consider the fact that during the past year, the post office ran out of available post office boxes, forcing those new to town to have their mail sent to general delivery.
“We have roughly 250 people/families on a waiting list for post office boxes,” states Jason Hirst, Watford City postmaster.
According to Hirst, a year ago the post office still had around 300 unoccupied post office boxes. Now, they are all occupied.
“There is no way to quantify the number of people that receive mail through general delivery, because there is no application process. It’s just their name sent to general delivery,” Hirst says.
“However, we can assume that if those who are waiting for a box want to receive mail in town, there could be 250 people or more, using the general delivery system to receive their mail.”
The way general delivery works is that someone has their mail sent to the post office, with their name, General Delivery, Watford City, N.D. 58854. They then have to collect their mail at the service counter.
The increase in people receiving their mail via general delivery is one reason for the long lines at the post office.
Hirst reports that when the mail arrives, they have to sort it into carrier routes, post office boxes and general delivery, according to name.
Watford City’s increased population and shortage of post office boxes is only part of the problem.
According to Hirst, Watford City’s mail truck comes from Williston and Minot before that. Sometime in the past year, the Minot and Williston post offices also experienced a growth in their mail volume and work load.
“The mail truck used to arrive at 8:30 a.m. Now it arrives between  9:00 and 9:30 a.m.,” Hirst states. “This is because we are last in line to get mail from Minot.”
Having to wait until after 9:00 a.m. to sort the mail provides another explanation for longer wait times at the service counter.
This is because the counter also opens at 9 a.m., forcing Watford City’s postal workers to sort the mail at the same time they are waiting on customers.
To alleviate some of the slowdown caused by general delivery, the post office plans to place 120 temporary post office boxes, called spinner boxes, into their lobby. Hirst states that there may be plans to add more at a later date.
According to Hirst, adding more postal boxes in Watford City is needed for several reasons. The most obvious is to serve a growing population. But more boxes would also allow the post office to better keep track of its customers, since getting a box requires a contract and information about the owner.
In addition, more boxes would also clear up space in the mail room. Space which is becoming more and more cramped.
And, with the post office literally running out of space, Hirst is also exploring the concept of Neighborhood Distribution Collection Box Units, NDCBUs, to office complexes in town.
“This would essentially take post office boxes occupied by businesses in the same building, and bring the mail to a ‘distribution box unit’ located outside their office building,” states Hirst.
Each separate business would hold a key for their box and retrieve their mail from the NDCBU instead of heading to the post office.
“This would free up a few more post office boxes. It could help those businesses that are new to town and getting mail through general delivery.”
Finally, Hirst does state that with recent budget cuts and branch closures, the post office is more likely to invest in a more temporary solution right now, rather than a permanent one.