Several months ago, county parks officials decided it would be a good idea to poll every Howard family before drafting a new countywide parks and recreation plan. So they put together a two-page questionnaire and mailed it to every Howard household.
But now they fear that as many as a third of the county's households -- in Savage, the western county and parts of Elkridge -- never received the questionnaires because of a possible foul-up somewhere in the postal system, a problem postal officials are trying to trace.
"We wanted to guarantee that we would get [the questionnaires] to every household," Jeffrey A. Bourne, county parks director, said yesterday.
"What better way than through the mail?"
The 1,204 pounds of questionnaires -- 65,116 of them in all -- were taken to the bulk mail center in Baltimore on Aug. 25 by a county mail contractor and began turning up in Ellicott City and Columbia mail boxes the following week. The postage alone cost $7,141.
But by mid-September, parks officials began to worry.
A consultant hired to analyze the responses to the questionnaires noticed that Howard residents outside of Columbia, Ellicott City and north Laurel did not appear to be responding.
By contrast, in other neighborhoods the questionnaires were eliciting an unusually high response rate of 15 percent.
Meanwhile, some residents in the so-called "zero response" neighborhoods began calling to complain that they hadn't received the questionnaires, Mr. Bourne said. He said he confirmed this by checking with parks department employees living in those neighborhoods.
At that point, Mr. Bourne began studying census maps and doing some calculations. Nine zip codes received the mail, but 15 did not, he said. He estimated that as many as 21,000 households did not get the questionnaire.
If those households are excluded, the survey's results may be useless, Mr. Bourne said. So he and other parks officials are asking the U.S. Postal Service to find the missing questionnaires and deliver them before the end of this month.
If they're not found, the parks department will have to spend thousands of dollars more to reprint, resort and remail more than 20,000 questionnaires, he said.
But Postal Service spokeswoman Debbie Yackley said she's not sure the questionnaires are missing at all -- at least not as many of them as the county claims.
Although Baltimore was ranked by an accounting firm last month as having the least timely delivery records in the nation, those problems have been corrected, Ms. Yackley said.
Mail now is delivered promptly 85 percent to 95 percent of the time, she said. For example, the Howard parks questionnaires were delivered to Ellicott City residents the day after they were taken to the bulk mail center, she said.
She said there may be other explanations as to why the questionnaires have not been returned to the parks department from certain areas -- including a simple lack of interest on the part of some residents.
The mail was not addressed to each household, but was sent to "postal patrons" living in each zip code, she noted.
She said that residents could have thrown the questionnaires out without looking at them or that the Jessup firm of Rapid-RAI, the county's mailing contractor, might have underestimated the number of postal patrons in some areas.
But John Cosby, the Rapid-RAI account executive who handled the county mailing, said he is certain there were enough questionnaires included in the bulk mailing for each area.
But he, too, is surprised by the number of questionnaires the county claims are missing.
"In my experience, the Baltimore [bulk mail center] has had a delivery record of 95 per cent or better and, recently, it has been even better," he said.
"Never in my years in this business have I ever had any difficulty with a carrier losing, throwing away or destroying a bulk mailing."
Meanwhile, Mr. Bourne worries that time is working against him.
"We're doing everything it takes to get the questionnaires to people so they can fill them out and send them back in," he said.