An Open Letter to
Austin's Postmaster

by Beverly Howard, Westlake Hills, Austin, Texas

Updated Nov 9 @ 11:00pm
(scroll to bottom of page if you havn't been here before)

Since things are happening, I'm reversing the order of this page... newest stuff at the top, so if this visit is your first, might make more sense to start at the bottom

Nov 9

What? No Line???!!!

It's only noon, but it's already been an interesting day.  I had to stamp over three hundred postcards this morning, so, I went to the Westlake branch and even before I went inside it was apparent that things might be getting a bit better by the fact that there was no problem parking near the post office.

Inside all four counter positions were occupied and there was no wait, so, I purchased the stamps and went to the lobby to apply them and observe.  The wait time went up and down as I stamped away, with strong emphasis on the "down..." one position closed and one reverted to passport processing so the line approached 10  at one point, but by the time I was finished, the line had been eliminated and it was noon.

That may seem trivial, but, since I cannot remember a counter visit without a significant wait, it looks like progress to me.

Westlake Picayune Day

As I left, I picked up a Picayune from the box just outside of the postoffice and headed to Thundercloud for breakfast and was surprised to find that, in addition to the edited copy of the open letter I had sent to Ed Allen, Ed had an editorial about the Westlake Postal Lobby
problems and a significant percentage of the front page article about remodeling at the mall had been given over with comments about the postal service issues.

What surprised me most that both the article and the editorial were resigned to what I assume was the response which they had received from USPS that nothing could or would be done to improve the stiuation, but, more than that, the assumption that additional citizen input would have no impact, something which I have to strongly disagree with.

First, it appears that some progress has been made by just one person pressing the issue past the stock responses that nothing can be done.

Second, we live here and have to suffer postal service failings which are unlikely to even be accurately perceived by USPS management, so they have zero motivation to correct things which they may not be aware of.  Both Mr. Hernandez and the USPS Consumer Affairs represenative did respond appropriately when the case was pushed and nature and extent of the problems was clearly outlined for them.

Finally, and probably most importantly, the extent of the lobby problems at Westlake are not common to any other Austin stations I have visited, so, we are the exception and a negative one at that.

I've tried (and I suggest others do so as well) to approach this from "what can be done" to help rather than to simply complain that there's a problem.  That involved observation, notes, documentation, calls, meetings and finally pushing the letter below to the point where it could no longer be ignored... if you feel the same, make the case... or continue to bring reading material when you need postal service.

Editorial, Nov 9, 2006 Westlake Picayune
"Waits at P.O. likely to continue"
Copyright Westlake Picayune
Reprinted with Permission

Expansion of the Westlake Post Office is reportedly not in the plans for the West Woods shopping center facelift (see front page story), and that is likely bad news for more people than just the writer of a letter to the editor on Page 7.

With the holiday season fast approaching, we are sure to hear more area residents lamenting about the inherent problems with this small, inefficient post office branch. But the reality is that there is little or no financial incentive for the post office to do anything. Customers keep coming to this post office because it is a cheaper alternative than going to a commercial mail center. The catch is that costs are low because the U.S. Postal Service operates with as little expenditures as possible, and manning another counter is a significant cost.

Unfortunately, regardless of how many people complain about the lack of prompt service at the Westlake Post Office, it appears a long shot that there will be any solution  on the horizon anytime soon. It should be noted that we have heard no complaints about the courtesy of the staff working the customer service counters. They simply do their jobs as pleasantly as they know how.

The letter writer urges a letter-writing campaign, but we are dealing with what essentially amounts to a monopoly.  In addition, since privatization of the U.S. Postal service, users feel they have little or no recursive action other than taking their business elsewhere at a higher cost or writing their congressman.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the squeaky-wheel phenomenon. If enough people complain, change has been known to happen elsewhere.

Ed Allen

Text Related to Westlake Post Office taken from the
Nov 9, 2006 Westlake Picayune "Shopping center facelift planned"
By Dane Anderson
Copyright Westlake Picayune
Reprinted with Permission

...Not in contention for an expansion of space is the Westlake Post Office. Manager Doug Leaver said federal postal supervisors are still searching for a new location for the station that will allow for expansion and reorganization. Leaver said the federal post office wants the local branch on property of its own.

The Westlake postal station has been the target of criticism for years over for long lobby waits, lack of adequate counter staff and unanswered telephone calls and email messages.

Westlake resident Beverly Howard said he often drives the 13 miles to the Oak Hill postal station rather than the three miles to his local West Woods station. Howard said a survey of local post office customers might be conducted prior to the holiday season.

“The issue for ten or so years has not been just the physical constraints of the current Westlake location, but also the implementation of service,” he said.

Howard said there are four counter windows in the local post office lobby, but  there are often as few as one or two employees providing counter service. He wants the problems in the station acknowledged and addressed by city postal administrators.

“The only way anything is going to happen is if hundreds of people contact the Austin postmaster.”

Nov 2

Just spoke with Ed Allen, editor of the Westlake Picayune (512) 327-9594 and they seem to be interested in the matter as well... stay tuned...

The Austin Postmaster Responds

Well... things are starting to happen.  I just finished (November 2 @ 3:40pm) a callback from the Austin Postmaster and promises have been made to begin to address this problem.

From memory, Mr. Hernandez promised to;

The First Result;
Telephone Case
1-800-ASK-USPS (800-275-8777)
Case# CV29328728

At the time I posted the above letter to the Austin Postmaster, I initiated a usps consumer affairs incident where I verbally outlined the daily problems at the Westlake Hills branch.  Today (Thursday, November 2, 2006) a written response (see below) was received from the

Rio Grande District Office
10410 Perrin Beitel
San Antonio, TX 78284-9631

800-460-8366, 1

The above response coming following my meeting with Mr. Leaver where he clearly indicated that the resources available to address the ongoing problem were not available, was, in my opinion, unacceptable.

Immediately following the receipt of the above response, I called the above district office number (800-460-8366, 1) and spoke with Mr. Aldean Nelson who initially felt the response was sufficient, but after detailing the ongoing problems, he agreed that the matter should be persued further.  Upon request, he also gave me an email address so that I was able to send him a copy of the email (as of Nov 2 @ 3:00pm without any response) sent to the Austin Postmaster.

Oct 31

The First Step

The following email was transmitted October 31, 2006 and a USPS Consumer Service Telephone case was opened the same day as well.

To: Postmaster Steven Hernandez
8225 Cross Park Dr
Austin, TX 78710-9998
(512)342-1576 (512)342-1280

Dear Mr. Hernandez,

I, for one, think it's overdue for Westbank residents to speak out concerning the serious Westlake Hills post office lobby problems which have been with us for well over a decade and which only seem to be getting worse.

A couple of years ago, I began an attempt to observe, document and compare delays involved with the lobby service at the Westlake branch compared to other post offices across the Austin/Travis County area which I have begun to frequent due to the problems here and those observations indicate that the lobby delays at Westlake are the exception when compared to most other stations in the greater Austin area.

In addition, for over a year, I have made attempts to communicate with the postmaster of the Westlake branch, the Austin postmaster as well as speaking with the lobby personnel about the problems.  Telephone and email communications to the Austin postmaster have never received any response and requests made every one to two months to speak with the Westlake postmaster were consistently met with "he's not here at the moment" until today.  Today, multiple attempts to telephone the Westlake station to simply obtain Mr. Lever's email address to forward him a copy of this message would simply ring for up to 20 times with no answer.

Today's visit was typical of almost every visit to the Westlake station for years.  When I pulled a number, it showed 17 people ahead of me with only two positions serving the lobby customers. (one position was serving only passport applicants.)  The count of customers waiting with me today varied in number from the mid teens to the high twenties during the half hour I was there.  It was interesting to note an audible response from those in the lobby when one of the two positions was closed for lunch just after 11:50, leaving a single position to serve those waiting who's numbers at that point had climbed to twenty eight.

Today, since it was obvious the wait was going to be even longer than the "norm" (the counter had only clicked twice in five minutes) I again pursued contacting the local postmaster with a postal maintenance worker outside of the lobby and following an initial rebuff that he "was not there," finally succeeded in a face to face meeting with him.

However, the ensuing conversation with the Westlake Hills postmaster Doug Leaver went a long way to confirm that not only nothing was being done to address the ongoing problems, nothing would nor could be done under the constraints he had with respect to his staffing.

I was given several "reasons" for the problems such as a worker being out for health reasons with no expectation that any replacement would be available to address her absence.  Repeated requests as to what could be done to address the ongoing problems received only the answer "nothing" despite my attempts to underscore the fact that the problems were endemic and not common to other area stations.

I have to question that response as the tiny Tarry Town post office seems to do a much better and more efficient job of serving their apparent similar demand with a lobby half the size and half the positions of Westlake's.  Is it possible that the long term consistent low level of service here impacts the customer counts to the point where the "metrics" don't show the size of the problems to those in postal management who are responsible for serving the population?  During today's half hour wait, I counted around a dozen people who turned and left when they saw the number of people in the lobby or compared the number of the next ticket with the counter on the wall.

The Westlake counter and lobby staff are unfailingly pleasant and courteous in what must be an ongoing thankless job, but I do have to note that I have observed what seem to be significant differences in the percentage of time that some clerks spend at their station in their efforts to meet the lobby demand and the willingness of others who feel free to depart the counter for extended periods when the lobby is full.

It has gotten to the point where it is quicker, and certainly much less frustrating, to drive 13 miles each way to the Oak Hill or the 9 miles each way to the Tarry Town stations rather than the 3 miles to the Westlake station when the frequent security requirements now requiring counter service come up.  I have tried online solutions which are equally frustrating and carry their own additional costs, so I come back to the question of "Why is the problem not even being acknowledged, much less addressed?"  As mentioned, it's now over a decade old, so I have to assume that those who have taken the time to voice their feelings have simply given up in their attempts to get a solution in place.

There's been "talk" of a new Westlake station, but, in my opinion, that is not the solution, especially not any solution in the short term... the current station _already has_ the physical ability to provide immediate relief if all of the positions are kept open and occupied when the number of people waiting in the lobby increases.

Beverly Howard
Canyon Rim Dr
Austin, TX

For the other concerned customers out there, do you have similar feelings?  If so, take the time to fill out the counter slips about the problem and call 1-800-ASK-USPS (800-275-8777,) press "0" to get to an attendant, then ask to lodge a complaint (Use the Case# CV29328728) and be specific about the problems.

If this level of postal service was the "norm" across the region even I would be reluctant to rattle the chains, but, in my opinion and based on my observations, Westlake has been getting the "short end of the stick" with respect to this matter for far too long.