LAUREL -- It came as no surprise to Margaret Deans to find that her area of Maryland was rated as having the worst next-day postal delivery in the continental United States.
"Sometimes I get phone calls saying I'm late paying a bill," Mrs. Deans said yesterday on her way into the Laurel post office. "I don't understand why it would take seven or eight days. You pay more postage and yet you get less service."
Just 55.9 percent of first-class mail scheduled for next-day delivery from Southern Maryland arrived on time, according to a survey done for the Postal Service between December and March.
In postal parlance, Southern Maryland includes Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties, plus small parts of Anne Arundel and Howard.
Only the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean had tardier service.
"What ever happened to the gloom of night and rain and snow and all that stuff?" asked Marjorie May as she left the North College Park post office with notice of a package that no one inside could find.
"My mother was a postmaster for 26 years, and I lived in a post office out in Oregon. Post office rules and regulations were more the Bible than the Bible in our house. I know what they're supposed to be doing," said Mrs. May, a retired federal employee from Sunnyside.
So, what happened?
The short Postal Service answer is, we don't know for sure.
"We were surprised, we were disappointed, we know we have to do better, we're committed to do better," said Greg Whiteman, communications director for Southern Maryland.
Mr. Whiteman said Southern Maryland was apparently done in by a double whammy: the high-volume holiday mailing season in December and the impact of the Persian Gulf war.
But he conceded that those factors were also present in parts of the nation that scored better.
"We have a high concentration of military personnel in this area, and the impact on volumes was above what was planned -- mail to servicemen, more mail forwarded," he said.
"The operating system had no chance to recover after Christmas. It is no excuse for the slow service scores, but it is reality."
However, the nearby Baltimore division -- which includes the rest of Maryland and the state of Delaware -- scored a respectable 79.6 percent, just under the national average of 79.9. Washington came in at 75.1 and its Northern Virginia suburbs at 78.5 percent.
The Southern Maryland division fared considerably better in the first two quarterly surveys of mail service taken by the Price Waterhouse accounting firm.
Under a three-year, $23.4 million Postal Service contract, Price Waterhouse times the arrival of first- class mail to 86 cities across the country.
Postal officials hastened to point out that 89 percent of customers polled in a separate survey conducted from Dec. 15 through March 8 rated postal service in Southern Maryland as "good" or better. That was one percentage point above the national average.
But don't try to tell Michael Hillmann of Laurel that.
"I've only been here two months, and it's the worst mail I've ever seen," said Mr. Hillmann, a 28-year-old tree trimmer who moved here from Connecticut to seek work.
"Any time a letter comes from Connecticut it usually takes a week. Five days seems to be the shortest, I don't know why," he said. The Postal Service pledges delivery of first-class mail within three days anywhere in the continental U.S.
Slow mail service suits some people just fine -- like Matt Murphy, lTC 23, a University of Maryland engineering student.
"I only receive bills," he said. "So whether or not they're late, I don't really mind."
At least one Postal Service customer, Matt O'Neill, 24, of Huntingtown in Calvert County, said he has noticed his mail delivery has really improved of late.
Of course, he just came home after spending the past couple of months hopping from ship to ship as a Naval Reserve signalman in the Persian Gulf.
"Compared to how bad the mail situation was over there, this is great," he said.