Jamie Taylor/River News
Of the seven cluster box units at Edgewater Homes, one is propped up on sawhorses as it has fallen off its base due to rust. The other six units also show signs of advanced rust on their bases.
6/29/2017 7:28:00 AM Edgewater Homes to get new cluster box unit after long dispute with postal service
Ownership question still unresolved
After years of dealing with deteriorating mailboxes, residents of Edgewater Homes, a 70-unit mobile home park on Eagle Street in Rhinelander, will soon have a new cluster box unit after the U.S. Postal Services agreed last week to replace a fallen unit and complete repairs to others.
The decision comes after a yearslong dispute between the postal service and the owners of the mobile home park, Yves and Ruth Riopel, over who is responsible for making repairs to the unit which the Riopels say was installed by the USPS in 1990.
The Riopels say they have been asking the post office to address the deteriorating boxes for several years and continued their efforts when Anthony Turek took over as postmaster in 2014. By 2016, residents were having problems using their keys and locks would often freeze during the winter, the Riopels report.
When the couple met with Turk in May 2016 they say they were told the Edgewater cluster box unit was the last mail system in the Rhinelander area still owned by the USPS but the couple was responsible for repairs and maintenance.
Yves requested a written justification as to why the USPS was not maintaining the boxes, however he claims Turek did not respond.
On Dec. 16, 2016, one of the seven cluster boxes, containing several individual mailboxes for residents, fell over when the base rusted through. The residents whose mail had been delivered to that cluster box had to pick up their mail at the post office.
The cluster box was propped up on sawhorses by the end of December, and delivery to those addresses resumed. However, the support posts for some of the other cluster boxes were also rusting.
When residents complained to Turek, the Riopels say he told them that the boxes were the Riopels' responsibility.
"He won't hardly give you anything in writing," Yves said. "It's sort of always verbal with this guy .... The only thing we got was from someone higher up than him saying that there are seven CBUs, cluster box units here and, absent any documentation that the postal service installed and agreed to maintain the CBUs, he has elected not to repair or service these things."
According to Yves, when the trailer park was built in 1988, mail was delivered door-to-door. That changed around 1990 when the USPS told the Riopels it would be installing the CBUs.
"They said this would be easier for our people to take care of and to deliver (to)," Yves said. "It was not my choice to do it that way, it was their choice."
Key to the Riopels' argument is statute 632.12 of the postal operations manual which states "the postal service may elect, under certain conditions, to purchase, install and maintain curb mounted receptacles or cluster box units."
Ruth Riopel said the couple were surprised at the response from the post office as the couple winters in Arizona in a community like Edgewater Homes that also has CBUs.
"Everywhere else we go, they are maintained," she said. "We don't understand why we are the exception."
The Riopels say they contacted the Hayward office of Representative Sean Duffy seeking assistance. A staff member in that office contacted Debra J. Blockinger, USPS government relations representative. She replied on March 9, citing section 632.627 of the operations manual which states that the "purchase, installation and maintenance of mail receptacles are the responsibility of the customer." However, the Riopels pointed out that section pertains to buildings not mobile home communities.
"Absent any documentation to indicate that the Postal Service installed and agreed to maintain the CBUs, Postmaster Turek has elected not to repair or replace the CBUs. Consequently, the owners or management of the community must provide the maintenance and/or replacement of the CBU," Blockinger wrote to the Riopels.
The letter ended with Blockinger advising the Riopels to contact Turek if they have any further questions.
According to the Riopels, they received similar answers from a consumer affairs agent with the USPS in a series of phone calls and emails in January and early February of this year.
Yves said Turek told them theirs is the only mobile home park in the area that has CBUs.
When asked if they have given any consideration to having the CBUs removed the Riopels responded in the affirmative.
"I would love for that to happen," Yves said.
"So would our residents," Ruth added. "We initially learned that there is a hardship clause; a lot of these people don't drive anymore, they are kind of sheltered in their homes. We learned that they could get home delivery. He (Turek) said there's no paperwork, just have them send me a doctor's letter and they'll have it. So we sent a doctor's letter for one of the residents and she went through a whole disaster. Then they came up with this long, drawn-out form with everything they have to do to get home delivery."
In an interview June 2, the Riopels said they were still awaiting an explanation as to how the CBUs could have been purchased and installed without paperwork documenting the process.
"How am I supposed to document that they installed them back in 1990?" Yves asked. "One of my questions, which they have refused to answer, is are you saying you never installed them? They won't answer that, because if they say they installed them, then the statute says they have to maintain them."
Yves said he believes it's likely there are people working at the Rhinelander post office who would remember when the boxes were installed and have been frustrated that postal officials have refused to tell them if they have reached out to certain former employees who might have pertinent information.
Among their questions is has anyone from the USPS called the previous postmaster, Darlyn Jackson, or former supervisor Lou Smith and asked them what they remember about the installation and maintenance of the Edgewater boxes?
"They won't answer the questions," Yves Riopel said. "And we asked Sean Duffy to get answers to these questions."
"You never get through to Sean, you always get Jim Miller (in the Hayward office)," Ruth added.
"And they won't give you anything in writing," Yves added. "They're like, you're on your own. You're our government representative and you won't get answers from a government agency for me?"
Ruth said she has written letters to the USPS for years in an effort to have the boxes repaired before they deteriorated but got no traction.
She noted that when she talked to someone in the Lakeland District Offices in Milwaukee, which oversees the operation of the Rhinelander post office, she was told the USPS is trying to phase out the CBUs.
"If you build something today, it is very clear in the statutes that they changed it," Ruth explained. "This is a grandfather clause that we are basically looking back at because they have transitioned into any new construction will have its own mail delivery system, that is approved by the post office, and the post office will deliver the mail to that delivery system that the builder installs."
"But traveling around the country, they are still installing these (CBUs) in certain parts of the country because they don't want to go door-to-door," Yves added. "If it is, say, a dangerous neighborhood, they'll put up cluster boxes. They don't want to go to door-to-door. They put them up, they install them and they maintain them. But here, he (Turek) is denying maintenance of his equipment."
The Riopels said they have been leery of so much as painting the boxes as they are government property.
"It clearly says you are not allowed to tamper with any mailbox," Ruth said. "I've been very apprehensive about doing anything to them. They haven't sent us anything saying they are abandoning their equipment. We have nothing, absolutely nothing."
The Riopels say even the transfer of mailbox keys from one owner to another has changed three times since the boxes were installed. Previously, the keys were just passed down by the Riopels, then they were told to stop doing that and return the keys to the post office when an owner left and the new owner would have come down to pick up a key. Now - at Turek's instruction - they are maintaining the keys in the park office, they said.
The couple noted they had never had a problem before, let alone having a problem reach the point where they had to contact a congressman or a newspaper. But their frustration over the lack of answers has only grown since the first box fell over in December.
When reached for comment last Thursday, Turek referred questions about the cluster box situation to Sean Hargadon of Corporate Communications for the Lakeland District out of its Carol Stream, IL office. At first unfamiliar with the matter, Hargadon was sent copies of the correspondences between the Riopels, Turek, the Lakeland District consumers affairs caseworker and Duffy's office.
Last Tuesday, in an email statement, Hargadon said the situation at Edgewater Homes will be addressed.
"After researching this issue further, the Postal Service will be replacing the fallen cluster box located at Edgewater Mobile Home Park, due to safety reasons. The remaining cluster boxes will be assessed and repairs will be made as needed," he said.
When asked if this decision means the USPS is admitting ownership of the CBUs, he replied, "we're still determining ownership. The most important thing is the stability and security of the receptacle for the safe usage by the letter carrier and the residents of Edgewater Mobile Home Park."
In a follow-up email, Hargadon said in most situations the replacement of older CBUs are handled on a case-by-case basis.
"Current practice for new CBUs are negotiated with the boxes being maintained by the owners. When available, the Postal Service may install a refurbished CBU to replace older and older damaged CBUs," he said. "In a case where older CBUs need to be replaced and a refurbished CBU is not available, a new service agreement will be negotiated with the property owner/management company/association."
"Our mutual goal remains the safe, secure and uninterrupted delivery of mail to the residents of the complex," he added.
When reached last Tuesday with the news, Yves said he is grateful that something is being done to address the problem, but he would like to have the ownership issue settled once and for all.
"In writing, thank you very much," he added.
Jamie Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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