Pacific County Fire District No. 1 Fire Commissioner Dennis Long learned a lot about the fire department in his almost two years in office, and said that knowledge will help him serve the community if he is elected.
Long was appointed to the position in December 2017 after longtime Fire Commissioner Greg McLeod, 79, died on Nov. 30, 2018. Long was president of the Bank of the Pacific for 22 years before he retired.
Q: Why did you want to be a fire district commissioner?
A: I have been a commissioner now for almost two years. I was appointed so I’ve not been elected as commissioner before. Commissioner McLeod passed away and I was asked to consider stepping in to his position. It was available for all public to apply for — no one else did. The reason they were interested in someone with my background is Commissioner McLeod was a CPA, so he had the finance background and they felt having somebody that had a financial background — particularly banking — would be very helpful. And so when I realized it was that skill set they were looking for and I love this community. I thought what better way for me to give back. The pay isn’t great, I can guarantee you that, but that’s no matter. You don’t do it for the pay, you do it because you want to do good for your community.
I’m just at a point where I am kind of understanding all of it. I mean I understand the numbers part of it but I’ve not been a fireman, I’ve not been an EMT, or any of those kinds of things. And so to get your head around the terminologies and how things work, it has taken a while.
Q: What are the central issues facing the fire department, and how do your skills help the department meet those challenges?
A: It is largely financial. And the reason I say that is we have the revenue stream and the expense stream, and I’m going to have to give you a visual here (Long motions one hand moving diagonal with a hand below moving straight up to meet his other hand) are going like this, and they’re going to intersect. So it is very important for us to find ways to either generate more revenue or harness some of the expenses. And that’s difficult. We have a ballot measure right now that the public will be voting on in November for a lid lift. And that will help us. It will help us generate some revenue that is badly needed in order to ensure that we can refurbish equipment, give people much-needed pay increases, all of those kinds of things that are expenses that enable us to continue to put what I consider to be a very high-value product to the people that live within the district.
Q: Your opponent mentioned a labor union contract was not in place. He said his skills might have mitigated that. Would you like to respond to that?
A: Sure. I happen to sit on that committee. I cannot get into talk about anything that is not a matter of public record at this point, so please understand that. He can talk about anything, I cannot. But what is of public record is that labor, organized labor, has continually asked for a double digit-pay increase. And this is a one-year contract that we’re negotiating. Based upon what I just shared with you about our expenses going up and revenue staying the same, we just don’t have the money. It’s just not there to do what is being asked for and I can’t go any further than that because I’m a commissioner.
The only last thing I’ll say related to that, our paid professionals presently average over $100,000 a year in compensation each.
Q: What do you think the fire department already has in place, what’s working well there?
A: I think the paid professionals as well as the volunteers are excellent at providing quality service that our public needs. I’ve gone on the calls with them. I’ve spent two 24-hour shifts. If I’m reelected I’ll do another one next year, I’ll always want to do that, because it gives me an opportunity to experience exactly what they go through and see first hand. And I assure you that the product they deliver to the public is just extremely high-level quality. They take care and patience to help people understand that it’s okay to go to the hospital. Sometimes people are afraid that if ‘I go to the hospital I may never come back.’ And they have ways of communicating that help people get to a point where they say, well okay.
An elderly lady didn’t want to go. She said, ‘No, I’m okay, I can just say here.’ And the captain said to her, ‘What would your daughter want you to do?’ ‘Well, she would want me to go to the hospital.’ ‘Well, just think of that as you consider what your choices are here, because if you don’t go and something bad happens, then I’m going to feel bad, your daughter is going to be upset with me.’ ‘Okay, I’m going.’
I didn’t do it nearly as eloquently and as softly as he did, but that’s why I’m so high on the quality of the work that they do. They do amazingly good work. I’ve seen them handle young children, and those are the ones that can really break your heart when something bad has happened to them. And they just calm them down and all of a sudden they’re firemen, going to the hospital. It’s cool to watch that kind of stuff. And to realize that’s a very special skill. And you have to be patient and not get too anxious and not show any sign of alarm and sometimes I don’t know how they do it. It’s difficult. They have tough jobs.
Q:What have you already done as commissioner to contribute to the fire department?
A: I led a strategic planning session that included not only management and commissioners, but paid professionals as well as volunteers were welcome to participate. And we spent a full day talking about strengths, problems, opportunities, threats. Everybody left their title at the door. There wasn’t anything that was untouchable. And so now we’re working on putting that all together. We pretty much rang the room with flip chart paper we wrote notes on and that’s going to become our road map for how we proceed through the next one to five years. Any strategic plan is pretty good for the first year — gives you some pretty good targets that you ought to be able to achieve — but when you start going from year one to year three, it gets a little cloudier, and then three to five, those are kind of wishful thoughts of what you might like to do if you can.
But they’re going to all be there and we’re going to take a look at those on a quarterly basis to ensure that what we said we were going to do in fact we are going to do and if we can’t do them why can’t we do them. If it is a revenue expense problem then we’ll have to deal with that, however best we can. Maybe we can’t do some of the things we want to do in terms of capital expenditures, in terms of new equipment, because we don’t have the revenue. Nothing we can do about it. But it is in the plan.
The other thing about the district that makes it difficult on the revenue of the side is we are a retirement community — 87 percent of the [district’s] revenue comes from Medicare and Medicaid. If you know anything about Medicare and Medicaid, they basically cover your cost. That’s what they do. And as a result of that, there is no real bottom line revenue that’s generated. And that is one of the reasons we are kind of struggling here. This is not a conveyor belt where widgets just keep coming. You can hire people to come in with volume increases, but every hour you don’t have a call.
One of the times I went on the shift, they called it the curse of the ride-along person. I only had two calls to go on, that was it. This last year I had five or six, I can’t remember exactly. But the point is you’re not generating any revenue and the expenses keep mounting.
And you’ll probably find across the state that number would be much lower in communities that aren’t ladened with retired people. Not just retired people, I mean they’ve earned the right to Medicaid and Medicare, I’m one of them. But it doesn’t help us with the revenue problem.
Q: What would you say is your greatest personal or professional experience?
A: I became chairman of the board for Western Independent Bankers Association and that is largely made up of community banks west of the Mississippi. It’s an organization for community banks there is an annual event and there’s a number of products and services that group reviews and determines whether they are viable and good products for banks to purchase. And to be chairman of that organization, where you’re nominated and elected by your peers, it was pretty humbling, it really was. You’re speaking to the group at the end of an event and you look out there and see all those really great bank presidents, CEO types and directors of their banks and what not. You’re just thinking, gee, I’m just a little guy that came from Elma, Washington, these guys think well enough of me to chair this place. That was pretty cool for me.
Q: Why should people vote for you?
A: I think I’ve gained the knowledge to carry forward the things that I’ve started. Our district is a five-rated district. All the contiguous districts around us are six. Being a five-rated district means that homeowner insurance is less because we’re a five-rated district. It’s not easy to get to five and I think we’re doing all the right things and I would continue to support doing those kind of things. My homeowner insurance is probably 10 percent less than it would be if we were a six, versus a five. That pays for the lid lift, literally. I would do everything to ensure that rating is achieved. I think it is very important that we continue at that level and I don’t see any reason why we cannot. But it is something I care about. I want the quality of service to continue to be first rate within our district. That is one of the reasons I spend 24 hour shifts is because I’m really there representing the public, the people that live within our district. I think I can observe and see what level of service is being accomplished and as a result of that, I have a pretty good idea of what we can continue to do.