IPS closing; county considering options for election mailing

Cascade County officials are unsure of how they’ll handle their mailing operations, particularly in the case of elections for the near future.

Innovative Postal Services, a longstanding local business, is closing Feb. 28.

The building is being sold and IPS has to be completely out by March 31.

That leaves a number of customers looking for other options, including the county and Great Falls Public Schools.

IPS has been notifying customers of their closure and told the county sometime in mid-January.

Denise Riggin of IPS met with county commissioners and Sandra Merchant, the newly elected clerk and recorder, during a Feb. 3 meeting.

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She said after a handful of phone calls, it was easier to meet with them all as a group.

Riggin said she and her husband had been trying to retire for several years, had no luck selling the business and finally, health problems and costly upgrades needed for their equipment forced their hand.

Riggin walked the elected officials through their operations and issues the county needs to consider.

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“We have to rethink the whole system,” since the county has been reliant on IPS, Commissioner Joe Briggs said. “At the moment, there’s more questions than answers. It’s not the kind of thing that you make a quick decision on.”

Briggs said they may need to come up with a short-term solution to handle the upcoming Great Falls Public Schools board election in May and then longer term solutions.

The next election will likely in June for city charter amendments pertaining to a public library levy.

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GFPS and the City of Great Falls, both of which uses the county for elections, told The Electric this week that they had not been notified of the mailing issue pertaining to elections.

Riggin told commissioners that her company has a nonprofit barcoded discount postage rate that the county is able to use for election related mail.

That saves the county about 50 cents per piece of election related mail, or thousands of dollars per mailing, a substantial savings, according to Riggin and Briggs.

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IPS also sorts the election mail and and processes it before delivering it to the post office, which is also a cost savings, Riggin said.

The county could get it’s own mailing permit for the nonprofit postage rate, which is a $500 application fee and $500 annually, Riggin told commissioners.

She said the county is not classified as a nonprofit, but many years ago, the U.S. Postal Service decided elections could qualify for nonprofit postage and a county elections employee learned of that rate at a seminar years ago and took advantage of it. She said not all counties were using that option.

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To handle the election mail, the county would also need it’s own sorter or to find a company that could handle sorting that volume of mail.

Riggin said she’s spoken to another business in town about taking over those operations, but they don’t want to purchase a sorter.

She said the sorter IPS owns was purchased used from the state and would sell for $250,000.

She said it needs $63,000 worth of upgrades by the end of the year to remain compliant with U.S. Postal Service requirements.

There are only four other mail sorting machines in the state, she said. One owned by the state, one in Missoula, Billings and Kalispell.

She said they purchased the sorted since they had a high volume of mail coming through their facility, but that has dwindled over the years, including when D.A. Davidson change their statement mailing to a Texas company; the garbage company was sold and sent their billing out of town and other changes in recent years.

The county used to mail tax bills through IPS but shifted that to a Spokane company last year.

She said there’s smaller sorting machines on the market, but they’re still expensive.

The system also requires monthly software updates with the postal service for elections, which cost about $1,300 each month, Riggin said.

IPS recommended that GFPS buy software for printing envelopes that would have a bar code on the envelope since they are able to use the nonprofit postage rate, Brian Patrick, GFPS business operations director and Riggin said.

County staff said 40,000 election envelopes had already been printed using IPS’ mailing permit number before they were notified of IPS’ closing.

Riggin said her permit number would still be valid this year, they’d just need to sort out handling payment for that postage for the short-term.

Briggs said the county should look at the sorting machines and also asked Merchant, the new clerk and recorder, to contact other counties that have their own mail shops and private vendors to find out what their options are.

“I’m not wanting to buy a bunch of equipment,” Briggs said, “but sounds like we’ve got very few options.”

He said they can’t ship ballots out for mailing due to election security, but could potentially have election staff drive the ballots to Billings to be sorted and pre-processed and have staff stay with the ballots, then deliver them to the post office.

Other county offices also use IPS services daily with original documents and license plate renewals, among other mailings.

“Well, this is a predicament,” said Commissioner Jim Larson.

No decisions were made during the meeting, but officials are looking into options and cost comparisons.

“We have to figure out a short term strategy pretty darn fast,” Briggs said.