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That may be the $64,000 question, as The Eagle learned Thursday when a reporter attempted to find out how one goes about filing a complaint about poor delivery service, and when one might expect resolution of that complaint.

In reality, it's tough to get a quick response from a human, and a U.S. Postal Service customer service representative acknowledged she was unsure where complaints are sent after she fields them.

The result for customers is frustration. And that's an emotion many Pittsfield residents have voiced this holiday season, as the reputation of the Postal Service -- traditionally one of the most reliable and trustworthy institutions in the land -- continues to come under fire from critics who are unhappy with allegedly sluggish, hit-or-miss service bordering on indifference.

Some city residents have complained vigorously over the past several days about delivery problems to their homes and businesses, while others claim the problems actually began several months ago -- roughly around the time the Postal Service began consolidating operations to tackle a stubborn, $7 billion deficit.

As a result of the cost-cutting measures, more than a dozen Pittsfield postal workers were reassigned and mail-sorting equipment was moved from Pittsfield to Springfield. But postal officials insist those measures are unrelated to recent problems concerning missed or later-than-normal deliveries in Pitts-field, the hub of Berkshire Coun-ty and home to the region's largest post office.

"Your complaints should be directed to the main regional office in charge of your district," said Pittsfield resident Raymond F. Moretti, who retired from the Postal Service in 2002.

For Berkshire residents, complaints should be directed to the regional office in Hartford, Conn., according to Moretti. But trying to get a callback from that office may be difficult, as The Eagle learned this week, when an inquiry made on behalf of Pittsfield residents seeking information about missed and late deliveries wasn't addressed.

A Postal Service spokeswoman has since told the newspaper that the interruption in service, which some residents claim is erratic and no longer reliable, was due to a variety of factors including the weather, a spike in seasonal volume, and darkness. Most local letter carriers are now working longer hours, sometimes until well after dark, said the spokeswoman, citing safety concerns for carriers, who shouldn't have to endure marathon shifts under adverse conditions.

Most irate customers who contacted The Eagle this week expressed sympathy for local carriers, while others criticized postal officials for failing to articulate new policies, including delivery changes, ahead of time.

Moretti said the Postal Service should have taken a proactive approach to soften the blow for customers, some of whom now believe the reliability of the venerable institution is slipping.

"As far as notifying customers, the regional office should have put an article in the local newspaper explaining what they intended to do, explaining that [the Postal Service] might have changes that would affect the delivery of our mail and cause delays until the system is de-bugged," Moretti said.

Instead, numerous people continue to contact The Eagle, via telephone or e-mail, claiming explanations given by local postal officials have been unsatisfactory, ambiguous or missing.

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Postal Service spokeswoman Maureen Marion has repeatedly apologized on behalf of the quasi-public entity, characterizing local delivery problems as "performance issues" particular to the Pittsfield Post Office. Delivery routes were revamped, she said, which means individual letter carriers are now handling additional customers. And that has led to delivery delays and other issues.

Customers dissatisfied with the local response from postal officials haven't had much luck getting a regional response, either. A spokesperson for the Postal Regulatory Commission didn't return a phone call from The Eagle on Thursday, and an effort to reach a regional spokesperson in the USPS Consumer Affairs Office in Hartford also was unsuccessful.

It took several minutes to reach a phone representative at 1-800-ASK-USPS, the published number for the Consumer Affairs Office. The representative admitted she was unsure where lodged complaints end up, though, she added, customers can request a callback from a postal official.

"We don't have information as to exactly who [complaints] are forwarded to," she said. "It depends on the situation."

When a reporter asked to speak with a spokesperson for the Consumer Affairs Office, the representative provided another phone number in Reading. When that number was dialed, a recording states: "Thank you for contacting the United States Postal Service. Customers are asked to contact 1-800-ASK-USPS for questions or concerns."

That frustrating, circuitous process doesn't surprise Moretti, who points out that the USPS is just as cash-strapped as anybody else these days.

"With the economy the way it is, the Postal Service is feeling the pinch the same way all businesses are," he said, adding, "It may even need a government bailout."

Moretti said the USPS doesn't receive any federal funds for operational expenses, which are derived from the products and services provided to customers. Regional postal officials call the shots when it comes to implementing new policies, he said, while local postal officials are expected to implement those changes.

Recent critics of the Postal Service have included individuals identifying themselves as postal workers or their relatives. With the exception of Moretti, most opined anonymously or failed to provide contact information, though criticisms have ranged from allegations of "severe understaffing" at local post offices to replacing human workers with "expensive and unproven technology."

Pittsfield resident Rebecca St. Jock views the situation as part of a larger, societal breakdown, where the old adage, "The customer is always right," seems to have fallen by the wayside.

"What ever happened to people who cared and wanted to solve the problems?" she asked. "We need to go back about 20 years, when the consumer actually mattered."

The Springside Avenue woman claims she's gone days without getting mail or even seeing a mail carrier. And she and her boyfriend have received time-sensitive mail too late.

"How is it fair that our kids miss out on things because the person delivering the mail could not make it here?" St. Jock said.


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