Big Sky had outgrown the current facility a decade ago or more, sources say.
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
Concern struck Big Sky during Community Week when Al Malinowski announced a plan to end Gallatin Partners’ contract with the United States Postal Service, ending their 21-year management of the Big Sky Post Office without a plan for mail service after Feb. 28, 2023.
Malinowski, president of Gallatin Partners, hopes USPS will recognize the ongoing challenge and step in to operate a federal service in Big Sky, providing the resources and scale this growing community needs.
The USPS stated in an Oct. 16 email to EBS that it “is willing to work with local businesses in the area to explore viable options for another” contract agreement to provide mail service in Big Sky. The email further states that the local postal management—Gallatin Partners—notifying customers and providing options for mailing needs “will meet our universal service obligation.”
Big Sky’s postal service has always been operated on a contract basis with USPS. In 2001, Gallatin Partners took over the contract from the Big Sky Owners Association, who had been serving roughly 1,000 mailboxes in their present-day ground floor office. Having seen growth and planning for more, Gallatin Partners made an ambitious bid to USPS for a $199,000 annual contract to upgrade to a 4,000 square foot facility. The bid was rejected, and USPS funded a 2,500 square foot facility, where Gallatin Partners began operating in 2002.
After two decades, Big Sky has nearly tripled in size, and the space and technology constraints provided in the USPS contract have made it increasingly difficult to keep up with that growth, leading Gallatin Partners to decide it was time for a change.
“This was not a knee-jerk reaction,” Malinowski said. “Without making this decision, our community wasn’t going to move toward the solutions that we desperately need at this point.”
Just seven months after USPS increased funding by about $230,000 to fully fund the post office, Malinowski understands that this news may come as a surprise.
“I get where there could be some confusion,” said Malinowski. “My request to [USPS] was that if they were willing to take on the full obligation cost-wise—so I didn’t have to go to resort tax anymore—that would buy us the time to continue working on a long-term solution for the post office.”
If the USPS had chosen to not fund the full $547,000 contract, Malinowski said the same decision to terminate the contract would have been made back in February.
‘The ultimate responsibility for mail delivery’
Malinowski said three factors led to this decision to end the USPS contract.
First, the post office is not big enough to handle the current population plus modern e-commerce trends. When large packages such as automobile tires and appliances arrive, the staff must work around the extra bulk in the small mailroom.
Second, as a contractor of the USPS, the Big Sky Post Office is not eligible to use any standard USPS technology. This includes their point-of-sale system—which Big Sky handles manually with a cash register—and mail status scanning. Staffers scan each barcode into a handheld device and manually download the data into their system at the end of the day, rather than having that information transmitted immediately as it would in the USPS scanning system.
“While it gets the job done, it’s not efficient,” Malinowski said, adding that USPS tech policies exist for informational safety, not just “stubborn-ness,” and those automated tools aren’t available to a contract office.
Third, residents living in Gallatin Canyon have to juggle multiple addresses with different zip codes, he explained. Any mail sent through USPS requires their Big Sky Post Office address with the 59716 zip code. Items sent through UPS and FedEx will deliver directly to their home address in the 59730 zip code because those items are processed by the Gallatin Gateway post office, roughly 30 miles north.
If a resident uses the wrong address, their parcel will often be returned to the sender.
Malinowski believes that the post office should follow the lead of the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District, which is moving to include the canyon. However, Big Sky cannot currently make any change due to their status as a contract facility.
Malinowski said he’s pointed out these issues to the USPS since 2001. Just five months ago, in May, letters were sent from a number of local and state officials, as well as from Montana’s Congressional delegation, asking the USPS to work with Big Sky in crafting a long-term solution.
Malinowski said he’s still willing to have those discussions and would consider extending the contract if they’re productive.
And if the contract is not renewed, this is what Malinowski expects:
“The ultimate responsibility for mail delivery falls on USPS … I’d like to think they are looking at what would be most beneficial for the Big Sky community,” he said.
Window closing on a chance to relocate
Some 30 yards from the existing post office, a multipurpose building is under construction. Malinowski said the developers have been patient as they wait to see if a post office might fill the ground floor.
“The opportunity that the building next door presents is a very efficient move, and a timely move,” Malinowski said. “We can solve this issue if things could work out in a short period of time. We could get the space we need and add the [mailboxes] our community needs. But if we let that opportunity slip by without evaluating it properly, we’re years away from a proper solution.”
He pointed out an area in the building’s rear that would function as a loading dock for deliveries. There would also be significantly more storage than the existing post office.
Malinowski says he does not know when that patience will end, but he imagines it’s soon.
He encouraged concerned Big Sky residents to voice their opinion by writing a letter to the federal postal service about their experience and frustrations.
“I’ve heard back from my counterparts, that they’ve received the letter and they’re having some meetings,” Malinowski said. “We’ve yet to have any official dialogue on how we can solve this long term. I’m optimistic, but to be honest, the ball is kind of in their court.”