The Absentee Owners of Local Post Offices

The building that houses the post office on the other side of town could be owned by someone on the other side of the country. In central North and South Dakota, local landlords usually mean better property maintenance and lower costs for the Postal Service, a regional reporting project finds. But absentee owners are in the majority.

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Dakotafire website and in collaborating newspapers. Doug Card, Sarah Gackle, and Bill Krikac contributed reporting to this article.

A small-town post office serves as a recognizable face of the local community.

“It is an identity. Your ZIP code and your post office is your town,” said Brian Bauer, mayor of Mellette, South Dakota.

It’s also the face of the federal government in the community, where federal holidays are observed and the flag is sure to fly at half-staff if directed so by Washington.

But most of those buildings are not owned by the U.S. Postal Service—and relatively few of them are owned by entities with the same ZIP code as the one on the outside of the building.

The U.S. Postal Service owns just 8,583 of the 32,232 buildings currently in use, and leases 23,649—or 73 percent—of them from private entities. This model has been used for several decades, according to Pete Nowacki of USPS Corporate Communications, because federal ownership is “cost prohibitive.”

“We don’t have the capital to purchase” that many buildings, he said.

Although most of the postal employees interviewed for this story declined to comment on the partnerships they have with private building owners, much of the information—including owner identities, addresses, rental rates and who is responsible for building upkeep—is public record and can be found at https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/foia/leased-facilities/report.htm.

Whether a property is owned by a close neighbor or a distant landlord can have an effect on how much is charged for rent, as well as how easy it is to maintain the property, a Dakotafire Media analysis has found.

Most Post Office Landlords Are Not Local

Dakotafire Media looked at data for 201 eastern South Dakota post offices (ZIP codes 57001-57481) and 87 southeastern North Dakota post offices (ZIP codes 58001-58081 and 58401-58497). About 37 percent of the South Dakota post offices and 33 percent of the N.D. post offices were owned by a person or a business with an address 10 miles or less from the post office community.

There was some correlation between the rental rate and the distance between the ZIP code of the post office and the ZIP code of the property owner: In general, the properties with rental rates lower than average were more likely to have a local owner.

Difficulties in Distant Ownership

Keeping a building up to snuff when an owner lives hundreds of miles and dozens of ZIP codes away—and in some cases has never seen the property—can be difficult.

 “They told me I’d never get a hold of the owner … I’m not allowed to contact him directly,” said Susan Ukaonu, a clerk at the Kulm, N.D., post office. Instead, she was told to contact the Postal Service with concerns, and it would forward the information to the building’s owner.

Nowacki said local postmasters are responsible for communicating any facility-related issues to the USPS, as well as any issues reported to them by customers. Who is responsible for repairs varies by lease. In Kulm and Mellette, those responsibilities belonged with the buildings’ out-of-state owners.

For years, the buildings in both communities had fallen into disrepair, and local postmasters said they had done their part. In Kulm, the problems were small, but added up to a big headache: broken light fixtures, poor sink drainage in the bathroom, a drafty front door. In Mellette, the problems were larger: Moisture had led to mold in the floor joists and peeling paint, and the building had shifted and become unlevel.

In Kulm, once Ukaonu became the fulltime postmaster, she also became persistent, filing a formal maintenance request every few weeks. After a while, she received an unexpected call from Daniel Durick of Seattle, Washington, whom she’d assumed had cared little about the building that was bringing the family partnership, Dakota Grain Exchange, LLC, $9,192 annually. As it turned out, Durick previously was unaware of the building’s condition.

“They made it sound as if I was being negligent,” Durick said, but he contacted a repairman from the Kulm area. Feeling the quote he received was out of line, Durick said he “decided it was worth my time to fly out there and fix it myself.” He arrived within a week of his initial conversation with Ukaonu.

“If you’re a landlord, people have to be happy with the property, and you’ve got to take care of it. If there’s a problem, I want to know about it and be able to fix it,” he said.

Durick and Ukaonu spent a day making necessary repairs to the post office, and Ukaonu’s faith in the partnership was renewed. She said he “really seemed to genuinely care that the building continued to meet our needs.”

[img:PO-ND-graphic-829x1024_2.jpg] North Dakota rent prices. Click graphic for larger version.

[imgcontainer left] [img:PO-SD-graphic-797×1024.jpg] South Dakota rent prices. Click graphic for larger version.

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