By Donald Wittkowski
When Jim Smith was hired as a rookie firefighter 23 years ago, he had absolutely no dreams then of one day becoming fire chief.
Joe Berenato started as a seasonal worker with the Public Works Department in 1990, taking a job as a carpenter.
Both men recalled those humble beginnings to their careers in Ocean City on Thursday night when they were elevated to the top positions in their departments.
Smith officially takes over as fire chief, while Berenato becomes director of the Public Works Department. City Council unanimously consented to the appointment of both men by Mayor Jay Gillian.
Gillian, lauding their work ethic and dedication to public service, called Smith and Berenato the “superstars” of city government.
“You guys are the best,” the mayor said.
In congratulatory remarks, City Council also expressed confidence in Smith and Berenato’s ability to lead their departments.
“I know you do a good job. We appreciate your willingness to take these assignments,” Councilman Keith Hartzell said in comments echoed by other members of the governing body.
Smith, 48, had been serving as acting fire chief since November 2016. The 52-year-old Berenato had been acting director of Public Works since September 2015.
Their formal approval Thursday by City Council removes the word “acting” from their titles. A new salary ordinance adopted by Council last month paved the way for their appointment to permanent status.
Smith will be paid $150,000 annually starting in 2018. Berenato’s salary is still being negotiated, said Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer.
Under the city’s new salary ordinance, the department heads are paid between $90,000 and $160,000. Berenato will earn somewhere between that range once negotiations are completed on his salary, Donato said.
Smith and Berenato serve as senior members of Gillian’s administration. The mayor stressed that he heavily relies on both men to oversee key parts of the city government.
“They work hard and they’re always there when I need them,” Gillian said.
In public remarks during the Council meeting, Smith and Berenato expressed their gratitude to the mayor and Council for their support.
At one point, Smith became emotional while thanking his family members for their support and patience during his long work hours. He affectionally touched his 10-year-old son, Brendan, while fighting back tears. Smith was also joined by his wife, Kate, his 7-year-old daughter, Sarah, and his parents, Jim and Patricia Smith.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Smith said he always wanted to become a firefighter. His father served with the Philadelphia Fire Department for 41 years and rose to the rank of deputy fire chief.
His father, now retired from the Philadelphia Fire Department, is a nationally recognized speaker and expert in fire safety. He is the author of the textbook “Strategic & Tactical Considerations on the Fireground,” considered a must-read for high-ranking fire officers.
During an interview last year, Smith noted that he often turns to his father for advice about firefighting. But during his two decades with the Ocean City Fire Department, he has also acquired his own level of expertise.
He attained the rank of captain in 2004 and was promoted to deputy fire chief in 2012. He took on the role of acting fire chief last year when former Fire Chief Chris Breunig retired.
Recalling his start with the fire department 23 years ago, Smith said he simply wanted to do his job. As a rookie firefighter, he hoped to move up the ranks, but never envisioned himself becoming chief.
“I can’t say I had any aspirations then of being the chief,” he said.
Operationally, Smith said the Ocean City Fire Department ranks among the best departments in the state. He characterized the employees as top-notch.
“The personnel are fantastic firefighters. They are even better people,” he said.
In May, Smith oversaw the opening of a new $2.1 million fire station at 29th Street and West Avenue.
Berenato, meanwhile, heads a department that is responsible for an array of city services, including keeping the beaches, Boardwalk and playgrounds clean. The Public Works Department also oversees the city’s roads, trash collection and municipal buildings.
Berenato said his first job with Public Works in 1990 was as a seasonal carpenter helping to rebuild the Boardwalk between 20th and 23rd streets. He was hired as a full-time worker later that year.
His family is well-known in Ocean City for their ownership of Berenato’s Corner Deli at First Street and Atlantic Avenue.
In other business Thursday, Council approved a $507,278 annual budget to fund special events and promotions in three parts of town that serve as magnets for tourism and commerce.
Known as the Special Improvement District, it includes the Boardwalk, the downtown area of Asbury Avenue and the Ninth Street gateway into town.
Some of the events funded by the SID budget include the fall and spring block parties on Asbury Avenue, fireworks displays, the city’s air show in September and entertainment nights on the Boardwalk.
A special tax on the businesses located within the SID help to underwrite the annual budget, along with funding from special events and partnerships with the city’s Tourism Commission.