Residents fight to keep village of Ojo Sarco on the map - Albuquerque Journal

Residents fight to keep village of Ojo Sarco on the map

Residents of Ojo Sarco want their old zip code back. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Residents of Ojo Sarco want their old zip code back. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

OJO SARCO – When I visited this tiny village off the High Road to Taos a couple of weeks ago, residents said it was in danger of being wiped off the map, at least as far as the U.S. Postal Service was concerned.

A notice over the summer from local postal service officials informed them that their addresses no longer include Ojo Sarco. At least for postal purposes, they now lived in Chamisal, as much as 11 or 12 miles away (depending on where your house is) past Las Trampas and across the Rio Arriba/Taos county line on the way to Picuris Pueblo.

It was the last straw for some locals.

In 1995, Ojo Sarco lost its post office. About 10 years ago, their ZIP code was abolished, and Rio Arriba’s Ojo Sarco became part of the same ZIP code zone as Chamisal, which is located in Taos County and still has a post office.

But until the notice in June, their mailing addresses, as described by the Postal Service, at least still included Ojo Sarco, not Chamisal.

Cleo Martinez checks her mail at the Ojo Sarco group mailbox recently. Residents of the village say loss of their own ZIP code is causing mail delivery problems and creates confusion for government agencies and companies. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Cleo Martinez checks her mail at the Ojo Sarco group mailbox recently. Residents of the village say loss of their own ZIP code is causing mail delivery problems and creates confusion for government agencies and companies. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

For my visit, a group of seven Ojo Sarco residents gathered at the tiny village community center to detail a list of alleged postal-related horrors in recent years, months and weeks. More than local identity is at stake.

They described a mangled system in which sometimes various iterations of an Ojo Sarco or a Chamisal address work, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes mail just doesn’t show up. And you can be penalized if your mail is improperly addressed.

Since the post office closed, Ojo Sarco has been on a “highway contract route,” or HCR, with the mail delivered by a contractor and residents assigned an HC number for their mailbox.

Just recently, Patsy Sanchez said, she had to pay a $3 fee – and it wasn’t postage due – after receiving notice to go to the Chamisal post office to pick up a copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac that she’d ordered.

She was informed that it wasn’t placed in her mailbox (everyone has a box, with the name inside, at a group box on the highway). The fee was due because the book had the wrong address.

The package had been addressed to a post office box number, which people in Ojo Sarco have continued to use over the years, instead of the required HC number (although the actual number on the actual, physical mailbox is the same as it has always been, the residents say). These days, detail is paramount, and casual acceptance of past custom and practice in a small place is a thing of the past.

Everything used to be different. Before a former 25-year local postmistress retired a couple of years ago, “if someone just wrote the name and the ZIP code, you would get the mail,” said Carol Miller, Larry’s spouse, a former congressional candidate and an activist on many issues.

“It’s not fair,” said Sanchez. “… What’s the big deal? We’ve always gotten the mail at the post office box number.” Larry Miller added: “I’ve never heard of being charged a penalty for a wrong address on a package.”

Larry Miller received passport documents at an Ojo Sarco address, but someone in the delivery system reminded him that he was wasn’t supposed to use an address that includes Ojo Sarco instead of Chamisal, which is across the county line and where the nearest post office is located. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Larry Miller received passport documents at an Ojo Sarco address, but someone in the delivery system reminded him that he was wasn’t supposed to use an address that includes Ojo Sarco instead of Chamisal, which is across the county line and where the nearest post office is located. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Carol Miller said that, with only about 120 mail boxes, “they know everybody – why don’t they just put it in the box?”

After a complaint to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall over the summer, Carol Miller got a letter from the Postal Service saying it would continue to accept Ojo Sarco addresses, but that didn’t solve the problem. Since June, some mail with Ojo Sarco in the address got delivered, maybe with a scribbled note that says the mail had a wrong address, and some didn’t, the residents said.

Delivery companies like UPS and FedEx don’t know where to go, they said, and return packages to Santa Fe after trying to deliver a package meant for Ojo Sarco to somewhere in Chamisal. Various entities, or at least their computers, no longer recognize Ojo Sarco, with its ZIP code post office now in Taos County, as part of Rio Arriba.

Often, mail that gets to Ojo Sarco, for no apparent reason other than incompetence or carelessness, gets put in the wrong mailbox, according to the residents.

“There may be a problem with the contractors or whatever, but they’ve taken something that’s a personnel problem and thrown it out there to start changing people’s addresses,” said Larry Miller.

At the Ojo Sarco Community Center, Yvonne Bonner, left, and Carol Miller describe problems with mail service and their efforts to persuade various entities that they really live in Rio Arriba County. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
At the Ojo Sarco Community Center, Yvonne Bonner, left, and Carol Miller describe problems with mail service and their efforts to persuade various entities that they really live in Rio Arriba County. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“My mother had the same address for 70 years – it’s really a bizarre approach to say we’re going to fix a problem that we have with people putting things in the right boxes by changing your address, without even considering what kind of problems that makes for us. It’s a very weird way to do things.”

Who knows when your insurance company or a government agency wants to send you something and doesn’t know about an address change? “How do we know who’s trying to send us mail?” Carol Miller asked.

The group said credit ratings are at risk. “Apparently, my mail’s going somewhere else,” said Nadine Velasquez. Two of her phone bills never showed up.

Carol Miller said that, for one resident, a past-due notice showed up after it was sent to the same address that was on bills that were never delivered. “It’s so inconsistent,” she said. “It’s like it depends on whoever works that day.”

Bi-county ZIP code issues

The internet apparently does not like a place in a ZIP code with a post office that’s across the county line. Auto-fill systems won’t accept Ojo Sarco as part of Rio Arriba County, as when a young person Miller knows tried to register to vote online and the address wasn’t accepted, requiring a trip to the county clerk’s office in Española.

Yvonne Bonner said she tried to enroll in a Medicare Advantage insurance plan and was told she couldn’t because she lived in Taos County, not covered by the plan. She was given only five days to prove she was eligible.

“Thank goodness, the man on the phone at Social Security believed me,” and changed her address to Ojo Sarco and Rio Arriba in records. “That could have caused a big problem,” Bonner said.

map temp_mar_16A woman trying to buy a house in Ojo Sarco couldn’t convince an insurance company of the existence of the village and its fire station until Carol Miller sent photographic evidence, Miller said.

She says there’s a simple solution: The Postal Service should restore the Ojo Sarco ZIP code to clarify in which county the people of Ojo Sarco reside and accept Ojo Sarco as part of the address.

Ojo Sarco can stay

Last week, I called Peter Hass, a regional Postal Service spokesman in Phoenix, to discuss the postal plight of Ojo Sarco. When he called back, the Postal Service – in response to my queries – had clarified that the residents can in fact use either Ojo Sarco or Chamisal as an address.

“We’re making sure employees know that either place is acceptable,” Hass said. Notices of this development were received in Ojo Sarco late last week. Score one for the power of the press!

But Hass said not using the proper ZIP code or an HC number could result in mail being returned to sender. “The rest of the address has got to be addressed properly,” he said.

Hass couldn’t say why Ojo Sarco lost its ZIP code (other nearby villages still have one). He said administrative changes at the Postal Service made it hard to track down events of a decade ago.

But the guiding principle for the Postal Service, which depends on the revenue it generates to operate rather than on tax dollars, is “efficient delivery of the mail,” said Hass.

A resident of Ojo Sarco had to pay $3 extra for the copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac that was mailed to her. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
A resident of Ojo Sarco had to pay $3 extra for the copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac that was mailed to her. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As for that $3 charge for Patsy Sanchez’s Old Farmer’s Almanac, it was legit, Hass said. It’s a fee for a piece of mail that has the wrong address, but is deliverable to somewhere else in the service area, in this case the Chamisal post office.

Hass said someone could have a post office box at the post office where mail is delivered if the street address is wrong.

Carol Miller said the reassurance that Ojo Sarco can be part of local addresses is a good thing. But she said the Postal Service is still “blowing off what our people say” about the problem of being in a two-county ZIP code.

She asks: “How much more could one additional ZIP code add to the burden of the multibillion-dollar U.S. Postal Service?”

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