Long Beach’s highest-paid employee in 2022 wasn’t the city manager or the city attorney, but rather a professional firefighter, Sam Pinto, who earned about $375,000, including his base pay and overtime.
“I understand the shock people feel when they hear this,” Pinto, 38, who is also president of the Long Beach firefighters’ union, said. “I understand the optics when the public sees city employees making white-collar salaries.”
But Pinto, a third-generation Long Beach resident who has been a professional firefighter for 17 years and was a volunteer for four years before that, said this week that the city’s 16 professional firefighters are making hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime basically because the department is badly understaffed.
“There’s no other community in America that has as much risk as we do, with our population and high-density buildings, and that is so under-served,” Pinto said.
Long Beach has a population of about 35,000, a number of nursing homes, and dozens of apartment buildings. A Garden City developer, Engel Burman, is in the process of adding to the city’s density, building two nine-story buildings of condominiums and a 10-story apartment building on the Superblock, 16 oceanside acres between Riverside and Long Beach boulevards.
Pinto said that the city needs 26 to 28 professional firefighters. There are currently about 100 active volunteers, he added.
Long Beach is the only municipality in Nassau County that maintains a paid professional fire department. Garden City’s village board voted in 2018 to eliminate its 11 paid firefighters, saying the move would save the village about $2 million a year.
“We have no problems in our village delivering the same service as other communities that don’t have paid contingents and they’re not burning down,” Garden City Mayor Brian Daughney said at the time, adding, of the firefighters that were being taken off the village payroll, “We’re carrying a workforce that does not benefit the people carrying the bill — the taxpayer.”
Pinto noted that there had been two fatal fires in Garden City after the village eliminated the professionals.
Nassau County’s only other city, Glen Cove, has relied solely on volunteers since it was established in 1837.
Long Beach’s professional firefighters, Pinto said, “are filling in for two to three other guys who don’t exist.”
Their base salaries start at $41,000, he said, and rise to around $80,000 after about five years. They can earn up to $100,000 with overtime. Over the years, Pinto said, the professionals have agreed to pay cuts. Several years ago, they earned about $105,000 after five years.
The city’s professionals have been working without a new contract with the city since 2010. Negotiations have been an ongoing slog of stops and starts, according to both sides. No one can predict with any certainty when a new contract will be signed. But there have been side agreements to keep the paid firefighters working. In March 2021, the City Council added a staffing agreement that guarantees a minimum number of professionals on every shift. That ensures overtime pay when a professional firefighter takes time off.
Both Pinto and Acting City Manager Ron Walsh, who is also the police commissioner, said they were working toward a new contract. “I’d like one yesterday,” Pinto said.
“We can’t change salaries unilaterally,” Walsh said. “That’s got to be a part of negotiations.” Overtime issues as well, he said, have been part of the discussion. “We’re trying to change the metrics to figure out a way to maintain” fire and emergency services, Walsh added. “We have to come to an amicable solution.”
According to city records, Long Beach spent about $1.5 million on overtime for paid firefighters last year — a total of about 23,000 hours.
Long Beach has been digging itself out of a financial hole for several years now, and was able to settle a $150 million suit filed by a developer, Sinclair Haberman, for $75 million. The city floated a bond to cover that payment, and some residents anticipate a sizable tax increase in the city’s upcoming budget.
Despite the number of nursing homes and large buildings, there are only five professional paramedics. Firefighters must be emergency medical technicians, but paramedics are more highly trained. The city says it cannot simply hire more professionals without an agreement with the firefighters’ union.
Walsh acknowledged at a February City Council meeting that the paid firefighters’ overtime pay was “not healthy,” and later described the arrangement as “unsustainable.”
Pinto agreed that relying on both base pay and overtime is far from an optimum situation. “Why so much overtime?” he said. “Because there are so few bodies.”
Ron Paganini, a former city employee and Civil Service Employees Association leader, raised the same concerns at last month’s council meeting.
“No matter how you look at it, we, the taxpayers, are in a financial pickle,” Paganini said later.
There have been discussions of doing away with the professionals, but such talk is heresy among the firefighters, and others in the city. “You need a combination of both professional and volunteer,” Pinto said. “The combination works for this community.”