The first thing I want to do in this column is apologize to our loyal readers for my absence from this page. I took a hiatus during a period of intense work to bring you our 10-part Rural Divide series and wanted to renew our acquaintance when I found something worthy of your time.
That series presented stories on the big issues confronting rural communities as they struggle to maintain jobs, schools and public services. An in-depth report on major issues is one of the things newspapers do best and we do it as often as we can to provide information unavailable in any other media.
But journalism can also have a very personal impact on our readers and that’s the story I am here to tell today. We receive calls on a regular basis from people asking us to help solve their problems with government agencies and we do that whenever we can.
I first met Lillian Davis in 2010, when she called the Tribune to complain she was being treated unfairly by the Columbia Housing Authority because she wouldn’t let maintenance workers enter her Oak Towers apartment to inspect her smoke detector because she hadn’t received the notice, required in her lease, that the workers would be coming.
Housing authority officials agreed that more notice was required and the practice was changed.
Davis called me last week with another problem – the post office was refusing to deliver her mail.
Davis, whose only income is Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, now lives in a small house on Hardin Street with her adult son, Jim Jolley. Both use oxygen continuously and Davis uses a mobility chair. To accommodate her disability, Services for Independent Living used Community Development Block Grant funds to construct a metal ramp to her front door.
The ramp was installed at the beginning of the month and that’s when her problem started. The carrier on her route refused to walk up the ramp, calling it unsafe. Davis, who returned home from major surgery in a gurney wheeled up the ramp, said she tried to convince the carrier’s supervisor that it was solid.
In return, she said she was told to move her mailbox, something her landlord doesn’t want to do because it would require drilling holes in the masonry and brick. She also doesn’t want to spend the money on a mailbox that could be mounted on the ramp’s railing because it could be exposed to rain and other weather while the box on her house is sheltered by the roof over her porch.
Davis was worried about missing important bills, such as utilities. The post office was holding her mail for pick-up but told her it would not do so after the end of next week.
“That is totally, totally wrong,” she said when I visited her to see the ramp for myself.
The next step for a journalist in a story like this is to call the agencies involved to verify the story being told.
Services for Independent Living Executive Director Jessica Macy told me her agency installs about a dozen ramps each year. The choice is the small expense for a ramp or the large expense of moving the resident to another location with the possible loss of independence that the agency is committed to promoting.
The contractors adhere to city code and when landlords don’t want a permanent ramp on their property, the “temporary” metal option is used. They are temporary but the ramps may stay in place for as long as the client lives at the property, Macy said.
“We have never had a problem before,” Macy said.
The ramp doesn’t have a non-skid, sandpaper surface, but the metal has textured ridges to provide grip.
The explanations for the refusal of delivery were different when SIL called, she said. One reason was it was too steep. Another was that it could be slippery when wet.
“We have been waiting on calls back from the post office,” Macy said.
When I called the Columbia Post Office, I was given the number of the Gateway District spokeswoman, Sue Litterly. After I explained what was going on, she said in a subsequent conversation, she turned the issue over to the district manager of post office operations, Israel Hilton.
He obtained photos of the ramp and talked to managers here in Columbia. He was as puzzled as Davis over the refusal to deliver, Litterly said.
“We called the station to find out what was going on,” Litterly said. “The bottom line is we are committed to work with this customer and make it safe for both the carrier and the customer itself.”
The first time she called back, Litterly said the carrier would deliver the mail on sunny days when there was no chance the ramp would be wet. The second time she called back, she said the mail would be delivered every day except in extreme weather or when the ramp was covered in ice or snow.
Those are the kind of issues that could prevent mail from being delivered to many homes and businesses, she noted.
“It is our job to deliver the mail to customers,” Litterly said. “We want to take a moment, work this out for the safety of our customers and our carriers. We are committed to providing reliable service.”
The bottom line, Litterly said, is “we’re not going to ask the customer to move the mailbox.”
That solved Davis’ problem, I hope. She liked the solution.
“That sounds good,” she said.
We are ready to listen to your issues as well. We may not get them resolved in a day, as we did for Davis, and we may not be able to do anything at all. But we want to hear from you and see if we can help.
Rudi Keller is news editor for the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.