A man of letters

October 04, 1994|By Hugh T. Skelton

OVER THE weekend we learned that a new study shows Baltimore to have the worst mail delivery in the country.

That comes on the heels of a study released this past summer showing Baltimore with the seventh-worse mail delivery.

Neither report surprised me. After months of problems with mail delivery at my home, including damaged mail, items delivered to the wrong address and chronic late delivery, I conducted my own personal mail study from August 1991 to December 1993.

With the scrutiny of a fact checker at The New Yorker magazine, I recorded each piece of mail (more than 5,000 pieces) that was delivered, noting the sender, date sent (many had no postmark), type of mail (first- or second-class, bulk, non-profit, etc.), date received and any associated problems.

I used the United States Postal Service's own standards in determining what constitutes on-time delivery: A first-class letter going across Baltimore is to be delivered overnight; those mailed within a 600-mile radius of their destination are to be delivered in two days; and those mailed from a greater distance in the continental United States are to be delivered in three days.

During the survey period, problems increased each succeeding year and more than doubled as a total percentage from 1992 to 1993. The survey provided a wealth of information, including bulk-mailing trends (Last year, 67.8 percent of mail delivered to my house was junk mail.) and confirmed my suspicion that mail delivery to my home was poor.

Below are some specifics that underline the problem:

Item: In January 1993 there were 10 problems with first-class mail delivery to my home. That includes incidents where mail was delivered to the wrong address (including what appeared to be a check from the Baltimore County finance department to a woman whose name and address don't remotely resemble mine), late delivery and damaged mail.

Item: The Village Voice weekly newspaper, which is mailed second-class from Virginia, was delivered late 88.5 percent of the time over 130 weeks. While it was to arrive on Thursdays, it was not unusual to receive it the following Monday or Tuesday.

Item: The Nation magazine arrived late 50 percent of the time in 1993; it was two to nine days late nearly 10 percent of the time.

Item: A letter mailed from Scranton, Pa., on Dec. 23, 1993, reached my home on Dec. 29. The three missing days were explained by the Dec. 26 postmark on the back of the envelope from Birmingham, Ala., where it had been mis-routed.

Item: On one day, two copies of a community newsletter were in my mailbox, my copy and one addressed to my neighbors. They had three copies in their mailbox belonging to others.

These problems may seem minor, but upon reflection, consider that my study shows problems with delivery at just one home with two occupants. Imagine if my findings were multiplied by thousands of addresses; the recent studies appear to confirm that the problem is widespread.

I began my survey for several reasons, including: response from my local post office to my complaints ranged from indifference to rudeness; because it seemed unfair that postal rates kept rising as the quality of service declines; because I believe that whenever public service workers produce poor quality work it should be called to the attention of the people in charge.

With that in mind, in May of this year I mailed the results of my survey -- an eight-page complaint -- to Baltimore's postmaster, Peter Vitullo.

Mr. Vitullo forwarded my letter to the local branch manager, who called me at home. We had an amicable conversation regarding the state of his art. I sent a follow-up letter to the manager, noting June deficiencies; and I also mailed a copy of that letter to Mr. Vitullo. Since then problems have been minimal (apparently due to a change in carriers). For example, the Village Voice, which various postal employees had told me could not be delivered on time for any number of reasons, has arrived at my house on time since the July 12, 1994, issue.

Baltimore's national ranking -- with only 66 of every 100 first-class letters delivered on time -- puts us at the bottom in a tie with San Juan, Puerto Rico. At least San Juan residents generally have better weather than us. Also, residents there don't have to pay federal taxes. Maybe those two thing help compensate for any tardiness on the part of the postal system.

Hugh T. Skelton writes from Parkville.

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