By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – While Big Sky is filling out with numerous amenities of the modern world, some basic services remain hard to come by in this rapidly growing resort community. Having your post office box is one of them.
The current post office, located in the Big Sky Meadow Village, houses 1,661 post office boxes. Census data from 2020 reports that the population of Big Sky as a Census Designated Place is more than 3,500 people.
The Big Sky Post Office, or Post Office LLC as it’s also known, is a Contract Postal Unit, meaning it’s operated by a third-party supplier, Gallatin Partners, Inc., rather than by the United States Postal Service. As Big Sky grows rapidly so do its postal needs, and Post Office LLC with the help of the Big Sky Resort Area District is seeking federal support to expand operations.
Al Malinowski, president of Gallatin Partners, took over the post office lease from the Big Sky Owners Association in 2001 and has been operating it ever since.
“I estimate that we could easily double the number of boxes that we currently have,” Malinowski told EBS. “And while I wouldn’t expect we’d fill them immediately, it would relieve a lot of the pressure that we currently have from people who can’t get boxes and allow for some future growth as this community continues to develop.”
Clusters of boxes occasionally become available as people no longer need them, but Malinowski says they’re snatched up quickly. While there’s no official waitlist, one post office employee estimated that 3,000 customer families receive their mail using general delivery, the default option for those without a box. General delivery is intended, according to Malinowski, for part-time residents and vacationers.
CPUs lack services provided by USPS locations, like passport service, and they also don’t employ USPS staff. Without anyone from USPS on site, Malinowski said it’s been hard to communicate the growing space between available resources and need to the federal postal service.
“We reached a point where the [USPS] stopped being able to really understand the growth that we were experiencing,” he said. Because CPU rate increases to support growth must be approved by USPS, this gap in understanding has translated to financial deficit for the post office. According to Malinowski, Post Office
LLC’s budget for 2021 is approximately $430,000. USPS has offered $317,000 in operational funding.
And yet, postal service must go on. In Big Sky, this has meant dipping into local public funds.
“In the last seven years, our reliance on resort tax has grown significantly because we’ve not been able to get [USPS] to agree to contract increases equal to the amount that the costs are increasing,” Malinowski said. “The rate that they’ve been willing to offer has been a fraction of what I’ve asked for.”
The post office’s most recent resort tax award of $131,000 is up more than 90 percent from its award seven years ago.
“We’ve contributed just over $850,000 since the inception of the post office,” said BSRAD Executive Director Daniel Bierschwale. In the last year, BSRAD has articulated to its applicants an interest in funding more project-based requests rather than operations. Post Office LLC’s fiscal year 2021 request was earmarked entirely for operations.
“This is not sustainable in its current iteration,” Bierschwale said. “We have to figure out how we can move forward for the community at large in another way.”
In pursuit of “another way,” Bierschwale and Malinowski have engaged Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to help garner federal attention from USPS.
“Montanans depend on the U.S. Postal Service for everything from paying bills to filling prescriptions, and as Big Sky continues to grow, those needs are becoming more and more apparent,” Tester wrote in a statement to EBS. “I am urging USPS to sit down with members of the community to begin these important conversations about how to improve and expand critical mail services, and I will keep pushing until everyone in the Big Sky community has access to the dependable postal services they need to thrive.”
Daines’ staff has toured the current facility, as have commissioners from Gallatin and Madison counties.
“The postal service is critical to Montanans in every corner of our state, especially for our veterans and rural communities,” Daines wrote in a statement to EBS. “That’s why I’m working to pass bipartisan legislation that would support and revitalize the USPS so that all Montanans can continue to benefit from their essential services.”
When contacted for comment, a media representative from USPS provided the following statement: “The Postal Service conducts regular discussions with contractors regarding service and terms. We recognize that with many of our resort offices, seasonal volumes and populations can be a challenge and we will continue to work with our supplier to efficiently provide service to the local community with available resources.
As Bierschwale and Malinowski see it, potential solutions could include a physical expansion of the post office facility to make room for more service, or having USPS take over post office operations. As the holidays approach and with them mountains of packages, Post Office LLC and BSRAD say they will continue to press the conversation at the federal level.
“We’ve long thought we would be the bridge to that transition [beyond CPU designation] and we’re still optimistic that we can be,” Malinowski said. “But not knowing when that transition might occur makes it hard for us to know what our involvement can be and for how long.”