LEANDER (KXAN) — At least 16 Leander households are stuck in a saga of missing mail, misinformation and misery — part of a nearly four-month dispute between a local homeowners association and the U.S. Postal Service that’s delivering nothing but headaches, residents said.

“You can see here this is broken,” said Gabe Garza, opening up a bank of metal cluster mailboxes, held together by a single rubber-band. “Just opens right up.”

Garza, and a half dozen of his neighbors at the Lakeline Ranch HOA in Leander, said their mailboxes were broken into in April. It happened around the same time other mail thefts were occurring in Central Texas, including one the month prior — less than two miles away — at a different HOA in Leander that was caught on camera. There is no evidence the cases are connected.

For security reasons, mail carriers can’t deliver anything to the 16 households affected by the break-in until the mailboxes can be repaired or replaced. The USPS said that’s the responsibility of the HOA, which the HOA disputes.

Lakeline Ranch HOA residents standing next to their broken mailboxes (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

In the meantime, for nearly four months, residents have been forced to drive to the nearest post office, about 10 minutes away, and wait in line in order to receive their mail.

“I missed a couple jury summons notifications that came in the mail,” Garza said. “I don’t go to the post office every day. That’s just not feasible. They close earlier than I get off of work.”

The busted mailboxes are creating a burden for some in the community who rely on important, timely deliveries of things like medicine, checks and bills. That includes residents like Jenny Villarreal, who said she’s been hit with late fees on her credit card after missing bills she said she otherwise would have paid if the statements were delivered.

“I missed the July statement,” she said, pointing to a $29 late fee. “I didn’t receive it.”

“This is going into the fourth month of not having a mailbox,” echoed neighbor Rebecca Reid. “We just want to be able to get our mail.”

Postal problems deliver nothing but headaches

The ongoing mail stalemate comes down to one question: Who’s responsible to repair, or replace, the broken mailboxes emblazoned with the USPS logo?

Not the USPS, it turns out.

The “[p]urchase, installation, and maintenance of mail receptacles are the responsibility of the customer,” according to USPS regulations.

In this case, the “customer” would be the Lakeline Ranch HOA, whose own rules, in its articles of incorporation, say its responsible for maintaining the “common area and facilities” of the property.

Despite that, for nearly four months the HOA has refused to pay.

“The information you are receiving from USPS is not correct,” the community’s property manager, Jim Smitherman, wrote to one resident. “The post office has repaired these boxes in the past and they are not HOA responsibility.”

In another email sent to all residents on July 8 — the same day KXAN spoke with residents and first reached out to Smitherman — he reiterated the same message.

“The association became aware of vandalized mailboxes in April. Since then we have sent several request to USPS asking for repairs and have not received a proper response,” Smitherman wrote. “We understand that some of you have been told by the post office that the HOA is responsible to do the repairs. That is incorrect. Repair of the mailboxes must be arranged by USPS, the Association is prohibited from making repairs pursuant to the Postal Operations Manual. The association has engaged counsel to help get a response from USPS and facilitate these repairs.”

“It’s a shame that after all of the money that we pay, collectively,” Garza said, “that this is something we have to go through.”

Gabe Garza shows off his community’s damaged cluster mailboxes, including his own. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

It is unclear why Smitherman believes the HOA is not responsible for paying for repairs, contrary to USPS policy. KXAN tried to reach Smitherman multiple times over several weeks by phone and email but never heard back.

Reached by phone, a representative for Smitherman promised to pass along a phone number and told KXAN he was only reachable by email. Five emails sent to Smitherman were not returned.

After not receiving a response, KXAN stopped by the HOA’s property management company, Goodwin & Company, which is based in Austin on July 14. We dropped off a business card, with a cell phone and email, stapled to a copy of the USPS policy, which states the “customer” is “responsible” for mailbox installation and repairs.

A woman who took the document said Smitherman wasn’t in but promised to give it to him.

Smitherman never responded to KXAN but roughly 30 minutes after KXAN left the property, he sent a message to residents, who previously complained to KXAN that he was also ignoring them.

“After engaging counsel, USPS has responded and agreed to repair the mailboxes, however after inspection they stated the damage was too great and they could not be repaired and needed to be replaced,” Smitherman wrote. “New boxes will be ordered and installed as quickly as possible. Estimated timeline is 5-7 weeks.”

Despite what Smitherman’s message implies, if new mailboxes are being ordered, the USPS isn’t involved, or paying for it, according to USPS spokesperson Becky Hernandez.

‘Customer’s responsibility’

“We have no information to suggest any postal representative made an agreement to purchase replacement boxes for this location,” Hernandez said. “A postal manager at the Leander Post Office can provide vendor information to residents and/or their HOA representative to assist in procurement of approved CBU [Cluster Box Units] equipment.”

In a statement, Hernandez reiterated USPS regulations “specify the purchase, installation, maintenance, repair, and replacement of mail receptacles are the customer’s responsibility.” Its role in helping is limited to providing vendor information, she said.

Any repairs could only be made when a postal representative is present, according to USPS policy.

“Postal customers are responsible for ensuring appropriate mail receptacles are provided for the receipt of mail, including approved centralized delivery serviced by Cluster Box Units equipment,” she said.

“We appreciate the opportunity to clarify this matter,” Hernandez added, “and thank our valued customers for their patience.”

With residents worried about their neighbors who don’t have a car or may be elderly or disabled, Hernandez could not say what people should do if getting to the post office is a burden.

“In the interim, during the limited time required for customers to purchase and install new CBU equipment,” she said, “they may pick up their mail and packages at the Leander Post Office.”

That “limited time,” however, is now going on four months.

KXAN emailed Smitherman, again, along with an email listed for the HOA board to ask who from USPS said it would repair, or replace, the vandalized mailboxes and why he believes the HOA is not responsible, contrary to written policy.

We never heard back from Smitherman. Emails sent to an address listed for the HOA board bounced back.

‘It’s outrageous’

“Well, it’s outrageous,” said Austin attorney Patrick Sutton, who specializes in HOA law. “Someone needed to take this in hand within a week or two, not let it drag out for months.”

Sutton is not involved in this dispute but reviewed the case for KXAN. He said the HOA has not just a moral duty but also a “legal obligation” to homeowners to “fix what’s broken on their own land.”

“If the homeowners association knows that its members are being harmed, and it has the money, it has the power to assess them,” Sutton said, “it should fix it.”

Sutton reviewed a section of the articles of incorporation, which states this HOA is responsible for: “upkeep, maintenance, improvement and administration of the common area and facilities of the Association, if any, and all lands, improvements, security devices, and other real or personal property owned by or leased to the Association.”

“I agree with the homeowners that the language ought to be read for their benefit,” Sutton said. “So that, if there is a big metal post with mailboxes on the ‘common elements,’ there should just be an assumption that that is the HOA’s responsibility.”

If there was a dispute over payment, he said the HOA could have fixed the mailboxes and billed the post office afterward.

So what can residents do if their HOA won’t budge? Battling a homeowners association isn’t easy, Sutton said.

“You’re asking ordinary people to basically learn how to be a local government and most people just don’t know how to do it,” Sutton said. “Homeowners can always sue their HOA, but HOAs have deep pockets.”

A difficult maneuver would be to hold an emergency special meeting, kick out the directors, and vote in new people, he said, noting there is a simpler solution.

“Directors, just do your job. We’ll sort out the money later — but do your job,” Sutton said. “Come on, represent the homeowners. Do what you’re supposed to do.”

On July 27, Smitherman sent a new message to residents: “USPS is removing the locks from the damaged mailboxes and the boxes will be removed shortly.”

“We are anticipating the new boxes to arrive and be ready for install in late August,” Smitherman wrote, after KXAN started asking questions. “More information to come as it is available.”

Smitherman did not say who is paying for the new mailboxes.