FRENCHBORO — The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) says that if Louis “L.J.” Hopkins won’t follow the rules, he can’t carry the mail.
But if he followed all the rules, he couldn’t deliver anything other than the mail, and that would cost him a sizeable portion of his income.
Residents of the offshore island communities of Frenchboro and Swans Island say some rules for mail delivery that aren’t a problem on the mainland simply don’t make sense for the outer islands.
The offices of three members of Maine’s congressional delegation have gotten involved to see if a compromise might be worked out. But so far, the USPS has seemed unwilling to budge.
Mail delivery to Frenchboro was cut from six days a week to two days as of March 31, when Hopkins’s contract to carry the mail expired. He had wanted a new four-year contract for Swans Island and Frenchboro mail delivery, but that would have required him to stop carrying groceries, prescriptions and packages along with the mail.
For nearly three decades, Hopkins has picked up the mail in Southwest Harbor, along with anything else that needed to be delivered, then driven his van onto the ferry in Bass Harbor for the trip to Swans Island. There, four days a week, he transferred the mail and other items destined for Frenchboro residents onto a boat owned by subcontractor Paul Joy, and more recently, Brian Krafjack, for the three-mile trip to Frenchboro.
The USPS has now awarded a six-month contract to someone else for mail delivery to Swans Island. That contract does not include delivery to Frenchboro. So, the mail is currently being taken to Frenchboro only by the Maine State Ferry Service, which goes to the island only on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Frenchboro residents David Lunt and Rachel Bishop wrote to Sen. Susan Collins early this month asking for her help in “re-establishing our regular mail, package and goods delivery …”
Noting that Hopkins and Joy had provided that service for many years, they wrote, “These two men made sure that we could count on receiving our mail, UPS and FedEx packages, groceries, prescriptions and other sundries in all but the most foul of weather.
“We do not believe it is right and proper for anyone else to determine what islanders need and to make changes to systems that have worked seamlessly for decades,” Lunt and Bishop continued. “One of the key lessons of island living is the need for flexibility and creative problem solving, something that L.J. and his partners have been adept at.”
According to the 2010 census, Frenchboro had 61 year-round residents; Swans Island had 332.
On April 15, spokesmen for Collins, Sen. Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin issued the following statement:
“Regardless of whether a person lives in a city, a small town or on an island, everyone in Maine deserves universal mail service at an affordable rate. That’s why Senators Collins and King and Representative Poliquin have been in contact with officials at the U.S. Postal Service about this issue and will continue to press the agency to see that full mail service is restored for the residents of Frenchboro as soon as possible.”
Swans Island resident Donna Wiegle said Chris Rector, King’s regional representative, told her that the USPS officials had said their only priority was the secure delivery of the mail and indicated they were unwilling to alter rules regarding the delivery of other items.
Asked about that by the Islander last Friday, Rector said, “We continue to monitor this. We’re working with the Postal Service, trying to come to a resolution.”
Southwest Harbor Postmaster Mary Saucier, who informed Hopkins that he could no longer carry the mail, referred questions about the matter to Stephen Doherty, spokesman for the USPS’s northeast region. Doherty told the Islander that the decision was neither arbitrary nor the result of any change in USPS policy.
“We had contracted for the space inside the vehicle that was taking the mail onto the ferry,” he said. “It’s just like our rural letter carriers who use their own vehicles to go out and deliver the mail. For the safety and security of the mail, they can’t have other things mingled in with it. They can’t simultaneously deliver groceries and other items.”
Doherty said that rule is different from the one governing the delivery of mail to outer islands by boats owned by private contractors. For example, Beal & Bunker is allowed to take passengers, packages and groceries, as well as the U.S. mail, to the Cranberry Isles.
That, Doherty explained, is because Beal & Bunker is classified as an “over- the-water” mail carrier. But because Maine State Ferry serves Swans Island every day, it is considered the same as a “road” used by rural carriers to deliver the mail.
“In the case of a [private] boat, we would contract for an X-number of cubic feet in a container for the mail,” Doherty said. “In this [Swans Island and Frenchboro] situation, we were contracting for the interior space of the vehicle. And whatever space we contract for, it has to be for the exclusive use of the mail, whether that’s a container that’s being loaded onto a boat or, in this case, a vehicle.”
Wiegle, who is director of the medical clinic on Swans Island and a member of the town’s Municipal Advisory Council, said residents of both her town and Frenchboro are upset about Hopkins’s loss of the mail contract.
“A finer man could not exist,” she said. “He’s a kind-hearted soul. He goes out of his way to serve everybody out here, no matter what the needs are. He’ll deliver anything from prescriptions from Carroll Drug [in Southwest Harbor] to a NAPA battery to a boat part to a mattress.”
Noting that Hopkins also has delivery contracts with FedEx and UPS, Wiegle said, “We rely on him for much more than the mail.”
Hopkins, 58, lives in Southwest Harbor. He is still delivering packages and other items to Swans Island nearly every day, but he told the Islander that, without the U.S. Mail contract, he can’t afford to keep doing that indefinitely. But he said he will do it as long as he can.
“I don’t want to turn my back on people who have been there countless years for me,” he said. “They’re like a family to me.”
Hopkins’s mother began delivering the mail to the outer islands in 1960. Twenty-seven years ago, she turned the job over to her son.
Wiegle said Swans Island residents know they will continue to have regular mail service, but they worry about what will happen if Hopkins isn’t able to keep delivering all the other things they depend on him for. She said they also sympathize with their island neighbors on Frenchboro, who are now getting their mail only two days a week and only sporadic delivery of other goods by private boats.
Wiegle said she told Doherty, the regional USPS spokesman, that if the USPS doesn’t allow Hopkins to resume carrying the mail to Swans Island and sub-contracting for delivery to Frenchboro, the people who live on that island will continue to have mail service only on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“I told him that, without L.J., they have no chance of getting six-day-a-week delivery to Frenchboro because no one would bid on that contract,” Wiegle said.
One reason, she said, is that it probably would cost someone more to do that job than the USPS would pay them. And even if the pay was adequate, she said, “There are only one or two people who can actually fulfill that job, and they are not going to work directly for (the USPS) because their loyalty is to L.J. They are not going to help anybody but L.J.”
Hopkins has hired Ellsworth attorney Robert Van Horn to explore possible legal remedies.