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Sort and deliver: A look inside MN’s Central Mail division

Dan Heilman//July 16, 2014

Sort and deliver: A look inside MN’s Central Mail division

Dan Heilman//July 16, 2014

Central Mail supervisor Cathe Cheesebrow of the Minnesota Department of Administration's Mail Services office chats with Curtis Yoakum, the state Department of Administration's communications and legislative director.  (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
Central Mail supervisor Cathe Cheesebrow of the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Mail Services office chats with Curtis Yoakum, the state Department of Administration’s communications and legislative director. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)

As Kevin Block runs a stack of newsletters from a Minnesota representative to his outstate constituents through an automated mail folder, he does so casually and with an assured hand. As well he should: He’s been doing this kind of work for 34 years.

And Block isn’t even the old man of the Capitol Central Mail department, which works out of the state Transportation building: He has colleagues who have been there 38 and even 46 years. Those longevity figures speak to the stability of the 12-person Central Mail department.

Central Mail is supervised by Cathe Cheesebrow as a division of the State Department of Administration’s Plant Management Division. Cheesebrow took over her post from Mike Proulx two years ago after doing similar work in the private sector.

The division’s services include inserting, inkjet addressing, folding and postage automation services through an Internal Service Fund to state agencies and local units of government. It processes and delivers incoming mail to an assortment of 23 state buildings.

It also meters and processes outgoing federal mail and processes interoffice mail for agencies not only on the Capitol grounds, but also the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, the Department of Education in Roseville and Health boards in Minneapolis. Central Mail also offers document production services and postage-related consultation for the agencies.

Ink jet operator Jim Nelson works at the Minnesota Department of Administration's Mail Services office. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
Ink jet operator Jim Nelson works at the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Mail Services office. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)

“We deal with anything that comes in with a ZIP code of 55115,” says Cheesebrow, referring to the ZIP code dedicated to the Capitol complex. “All of that comes to Central Mail at 395 John Ireland Boulevard and we distribute it from there.”

Keeping up with shifting addresses

Central Mail’s facilities include a sorting room with a massive, state-of-the-art sorter; a main processing room where 863,000 pieces of mail are sorted in a typical month; and a loading bay where all outgoing mail is loaded under the watchful eye of a United States Postal Service supervisor.

All the facilities are secured and can’t be entered without a passkey; since they deal regularly with private data, all workers undergo security training and sign a code-of-conduct form to make sure it stays private. (And no, the department has never received a letter containing anthrax.)

The processing room is a jumble of workers, machines, boxes of mail to be processed, and cubbyholes devoted to various state agencies. Some of the cubbyholes have new addresses hastily scribbled on tape and pasted over old ones; the Capitol restoration project has caused many departments to temporarily relocate, forcing Central Mail to stay alert as mail needs rerouting.

Nearby, a huge box is full to the brim with license plates that have just arrived from the Moose Lake Correctional Facility. (Yes, they really do make license plates in prison.) Mail pieces are weighed on the fly by equipment that automatically distinguishes between letter rate and flat rate and applies postage accordingly. Nearby sits a teetering stack of trays and boxes to be reused.

The sorting room is a model of efficiency that any government agency would envy. A software program pre-sorts the mail, and the sorter uses optical character recognition to send each piece down a high-speed processing slot that puts it into one of many bins arranged by ZIP code.

If the recipient has a new address that’s registered with the Postal Service, the sorter will change it and slap on a new address sticker on the fly. It also automatically tracks which piece came from which state agency and keeps a running tally of each agency’s postage tab.

“This is no longer a lick-and-stick operation,” says Cheesebrow.

Anything on paper

Central Mail has been a part of Minnesota government since the 1930s. It gets a sliver of funding from the state’s general fund ($438,000 for fiscal 2015), but like many divisions under the aegis of Administration, it’s run as a business and is largely self-sustaining.

The division’s revenue for fiscal 2015 is projected to be $9.3 million, but because it offers clients discounted postage rates, it runs at a slight loss. Combine that with the ever-looming possibility of a postage rate increase, and Central Mail must always keep on its fiscal toes.

“We do quarterly business goals for each division, measurable areas of improvement,” says Curtis Yoakum, Admin’s director of communications and legislation. “Part of that is talking to the customers and finding out what they can do better.”

Much of Central Mail’s work comes from the departments that have the most interaction with the public: Revenue, Public Safety, Human Services, Health, Natural Resources. Other days, it might send out renewal forms for things like barber and cosmetology licenses.

“We handle anything that has to go out in paper form according to statute,” says Cheesebrow. “This month we’re [doing] initial mailings regarding the state’s energy assistance program: They want plenty of time to receive and process applications, and there’s a follow-up mailing with acceptance letters and assistance checks.”

Fighting ‘the usual way’

Central Mail’s staffing level remains constant throughout the year, regardless of whether the Legislature is in session. Part of the reason is that while the division does a significant amount of work on behalf of the House, the Senate does its own mailing — it even uses postage stamps rather than a more efficient metering/permit system.

Cheesebrow is working with a handful of Senate contacts to change that, and has gotten a smattering of support for her department taking on Senate mail, but the wheels turn slowly.

Yoakum manages a wry smile when the Senate anomaly is brought up. “There’s always been a bit of a separation between how the two chambers do things,” he says.

In fact, Cheesebrow says the primary obstacle in her job is doing battle with the entrenchment and turf-claiming that comes at any level of government. Ideally, when a department has a mailing project, it sends along the necessary supplies and a mailing list and lets Central Mail and its regulatory knowledge take it from there. But some departments see their materials as sacred and are reluctant to accept outside help.

Also, Central Mail is still asked to process cards with hand-addressed labels, and struggles with departments that would rather ask overtaxed staff to spend two on-and-off weeks producing and processing a mailing that Central Mail could handle in a few hours.

“Our biggest challenge is the ‘We’ve always done it this way’ mindset,” she says. “I see a lot of different ways that we could streamline things for our customers. But some departments want to be very certain that you handle their data the right way.”

Nevertheless, Central Mail knows it provides an invaluable service that doesn’t drain state resources. Its greatest benefit to its clients is that it offers the opportunity to save a bundle on postage savings, along with its expertise in interpreting complex postal regulations and requirements regarding the design of mail pieces — for instance, until recently, mailings of a certain size could be sealed with a single sticker tab; now there must be two.

Cheesebrow says she’s gratified to know that her department helps the state, even if her clients don’t always know it.

“It’s a win-win for the customer,” she says.

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