Residents across the region have complained to Sen. Tim Kaine about problems with mail delivery. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Mail service has been a little better this month for the town of Chilhowie and the Thomas Bridge Water Corp., but officials there — reeling from months of severe mail delays — are waiting to see if the improvements last.

The town and the nonprofit utility, both in Smyth County, have been having problems with monthly water bills and, in the town’s case, sewer bills that are mailed to customers but not received until weeks later, often resulting in late payments. Some customers never receive their bills.

The improvements come despite the refusal of either the town or the utility to switch from 4-by-6-inch postcard bills to letters with an envelope, which was recommended when officials with both complained to the U.S. Postal Service.

Both the town of Chilhowie and the Thomas Bridge Water Corp. send their bills as postcards that are approved for use by the U.S. Postal Service. Photo courtesy of the town of Chilhowie.

Apparently, the postcards get caught in Postal Service machinery. Some bills brought in by customers look like they’ve been chewed up, according to Joe Copenhaver, administrator for the water corporation in Marion.

Both the town and the water corporation are on tight budgets and the switch would cost them thousands of dollars per year and be a lot more trouble for their small staffs.

“By putting them in envelopes instead of standard postcards would be about a 19-cent increase per customer,” said longtime Chilhowie Town Manager John Clark Jr. “At 2,500 customers, that would be $475 per month or $5,700 per year. And we would have to have staff stuff the envelopes, which would take hours, or purchase some type of machine.”

He added that the town has used the postcards for more than 50 years.

And, perhaps most importantly, both Clark and Copenhaver pointed out that the postcards are approved for use by the Postal Service.

The town did follow the recent suggestion of postal officials that the utility bills be sorted by where they’re going — to Chilhowie, Marion or elsewhere — which seems to have helped, Clark said.

In addition to sharing their concerns with the Postal Service, both also took their mail troubles to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who said the problems aren’t unique to Smyth County or to Southwest Virginia, where complaints have been heavy in recent months.

On Dec. 16, 2022, Clark wrote to Kaine, saying that it had been a particularly bad month for late bills. The bills were sent out Nov. 30 with the regular due date of Dec. 15, but by Dec. 5, the office began getting deluged with calls and visits from unhappy customers who complained that they hadn’t received their bills.

Over the next week or so, the office fielded hundreds of complaints about missing bills. The town manager said he contacted the post office and was told that the bills were stuck at a postal facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, and that an email inquiry would be sent.

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A few days later, with no bills in sight, Clark asked the local postmaster to call Greensboro. Later that day, the postmaster called back to say the bills had been found and were being processed so that Chilhowie customers should get them around Dec. 12.

Clark said he was told the postcards were causing the delay. He replied that the postcards were Postal Service-approved, legal and cost-effective.

By Dec. 16, the date of the complaint to Kaine, the town was still hearing from customers about late bills, Clark said.

“This situation of customers not receiving bills after mailing for ten to 14 days (or even more) is troublesome, to say the least, and not sustainable,” Clark wrote. 

“This situation happened at least once, and I think twice, during the COVID epidemic. When we called then the Post Office blamed the delay on the epidemic. This current delay cannot now be blamed on COVID. In addition to upsetting our customers this could have affected the Town’s cash flow,” wrote Clark, who added that water and sewer revenues make up nearly half of the town’s $5.5 million budget.

“The Town has to pay bills too in a timely manner,” he wrote, ending the message with a plea for help.

The town has other methods to get bills to customers — and to receive payment — that would allow it to bypass the Postal Service. Customers can pay by auto deduction, and they’ve been able to pay online for about a year. And as of about two months ago, the town started emailing bills, and about 100 customers are now taking advantage of it, Clark said.

Thomas Bridge Water Corp., which provides drinking water to more than 1,800 households, can’t afford the fees associated with online bill payments. The corporation reported to Kaine’s office that bills mailed Feb. 1 had not been received by any customers nearly two weeks later, on Feb. 13. The following month, it reported that as of March 10, bills mailed March 1 had not been received by at least half of its customers.

“Although happy with the slight improvement from last month, we feel that the postal service is still having issues getting the bills to our customers in a timely manner,” Copenhaver wrote to Kaine.

“This has caused issues not only for us as a company, but also for our customers who are upset over past due/late fee charges caused by the delay in delivery. We are constantly receiving phone calls from customers, complaining about these issues. We have not shut any one’s water off but penalties and fees are most definitely an issue.”

Progress, but still problems

Complaints about mail service are nothing new to Kaine, who wrote a letter to the Postal Service on May 26 sharing the issues in Smyth County as well as other areas in Virginia.

He followed up with a news release and a virtual news conference on June 1, when he told reporters that the postal complaints he receives are normally up and down, “but we’ve started to see it really degrade in the last few months, and I don’t yet have a good answer about why, and, more importantly, I don’t have a good answer about what we are going to do to fix it.”

In addition to Smyth County, the senator said he has gotten complaints from other parts of Southwest Virginia and areas across the state, including Roanoke, Charlottesville, Richmond, the Shenandoah Valley and “midway from Roanoke to Winchester.”

He went on to say that late bills are bad enough, but people also depend on timely delivery of critical items like medications, Social Security checks and veterans’ benefits.

“This late mail delivery has a huge impact on people’s lives,” the senator said.

Like Clark, Kaine has an issue with the problems being blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that President Joe Biden declared the public health emergency over in May.

He also worked for improved postal service in 2022, when he helped pass the bipartisan Postal Service Reform Act to strengthen transparency and accountability for Postal Service performance and eliminate financial burdens, according to a news release Kaine sent out in June.

In his letter to the Postal Service, Kaine asked three questions:

  • Now that the country is closer to a post-pandemic posture, to what degree are staffing shortages still responsible for delays, and why?
  • Are there bottlenecks in any of the regions of Southwest Virginia, Richmond/Central Virginia and Northern Virginia that could explain the challenges and if so, what changes are being made? 
  • Beyond the Postal Service Reform Act, are there other systemic changes policymakers should consider that would reduce these types of issues?

Kaine received a reply June 22 from Scott Slusher, the Postal Service’s Eastern states director on a team of government relations liaisons. In the two-page response, he assured the senator that the goal of the Postal Service is to provide “high-quality, reliable service.”

Slusher, who said the agency has 16,700 employees in the state who work in 900 facilities, said recent efforts, including more than 95 job fairs this year, have resulted in the Postal Service’s operations in the commonwealth being “adequately staffed.”

Processing centers in Sandston, Merrifield, Dulles, Norfolk and Roanoke handle the mail destined for 3.8 million Virginia addresses each day, and they are currently operating effectively without any regional backlogs, he added.

Employee availability in the processing facilities was impacted during the pandemic, but that has improved, Slusher wrote. He noted the importance of employees to service and said 1,949 new employees have been hired this year.

Questions sent to the Postal Service about the mail delays in Chilhowie by Cardinal News brought a similar response from Philip Bogenberger, who handles communications for the agency’s North Carolina and Virginia districts. He also said most post offices are adequately staffed, and delivery routes are covered in Roanoke and the surrounding area. Contingency plans are in place for when employees are on leave, but “staffing challenges can arise, which has resulted in brief periods of sporadic mail delivery on some routes in the area,” he said.

Regarding the issues with Chilhowie and the Thomas Bridge Water Corp., Slusher said Virginia postal officials are happy to work with them on the design of their mail to ensure everything is formatted for processing on automated sorting equipment.

Slusher also informed Kaine of a recently established online performance dashboard where the public can view the on-time delivery rate for different services by entering their ZIP code.

On Monday, using the Chilhowie ZIP code, the dashboard said the service performance for first-class mail was 91% with the average days to deliver at 2.7. At the same time last year, the performance number was 92.02% with 2.6 average days to deliver.

For periodicals, the performance rate for Chilhowie was 86.18% with average days to deliver at 1.5. Last year at this time, the numbers were 84.84% for performance and 1.5 for average days to deliver.

Slusher concluded the letter by writing that service excellence is a key component of Delivering for America, the Postal Service’s 10-year strategic plan that began in 2021, an initiative that was also mentioned by Bogenberger.

In response to the letter from Slusher, Kaine released the following statement: “I appreciate that USPS responded to my letter outlining concerns I’ve heard from Virginians regarding postal delays, and I’m pleased to hear that USPS is making progress in addressing the staffing shortages that were negatively impacting service throughout and after the pandemic.

“However, it’s clear that USPS is far from delivering the reliable service every Virginian deserves. I’m frustrated that mail delivery issues are persisting and will continue to be in touch with USPS to identify why that is so we can make sure those problems are addressed.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...