The Cloquet Area Fire District Board met Wednesday, June 17, to approve a contract for a new fire chief.

Instead of approving or rejecting the counteroffer of former Eden Prairie Fire Chief George Esbensen, the board voted to form a subcommittee to continue negotiations.

Current Chief Kevin Schroeder plans to retire Saturday, June 26, after leading the department the past nine years. Schroeder has been a part of the CAFD since 1988.

In a split vote at a June 3 special meeting, the board voted to offer Esbensen a contract with a yearly salary of $119,524. Board members Gary Harms, Bob DeCaigny, Linda Way and Warren “Bun” Carlson voted in favor of the contract, with Jim Langenbrunner, Marshall Johnson and Jason Paulson voting against it.

During the June 3 meeting, the board squabbled over Esbensen’s qualifications, compensation and even whether to offer him a severance package.

George Esbensen
George Esbensen

Esbebsen served as the fire chief and director of emergency preparedness in Eden Prairie from 2002 until he retired from the position in 2018. Since that time he has worked as the director of sales and marketing for Superior Product Handling Solutions Inc. in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. The company’s website says it builds “automated solutions for print, mail and packaging professionals.”

Esbensen also holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Bethel University in St. Paul and associate degrees in emergency management and fire service from Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park.

The board’s initial offer was below Esbensen’s requested salary of $125,000, but Langenbrunner said he didn’t want to go above a step three salary of $104,000 because it wasn’t fair to Schroeder who makes approximately $114,000 per year. Langenbrunner said Schroeder has more administrative experience — like overseeing contract negotiations and working with the Legislature — than most fire chiefs.

“None of those things are done by a fire chief — none of them,” Langenbrunner said. “Maybe if we were bringing in a city administrator ... but we are bringing in a fire chief. He hasn’t done these things, so a lot of this is going to be on-the-job training. I am not going to bring him in higher than three.”

Way and Schroeder pointed out that for the first eight years of his tenure as CAFD chief, Schroeder received administrative assistance from the city of Cloquet. In addition, a recent compensation study revealed Schroeder is somewhat underpaid and $125,000 is a more appropriate salary for the position.

Sharon Klumpp of the recruiting firm Baker-Tilly also noted since Esbensen is retired and already drawing a pension, CAFD would see a savings in total compensation because it would not need to contribute to Esbensen’s pension. Klumpp said CAFD contributed more than $20,000 to Schroeder’s retirement last year, meaning the district would save more than $9,000 per year if they were paying Esbensen $125,000.

Paulson went further and said he opposed Esbensen’s hire generally and would not vote to hire him because the CAFD needed an administrator not a fire chief. Paulson said he would prefer someone with qualifications more like former Cloquet City Administrator Brian Fritsinger.

Fritsinger initially interviewed for the position and was selected as a finalist, but withdrew his name from consideration shortly before the June 3 meeting.

“Brian, who pulled out, would have been — to many of us — the perfect hire,” Paulson said “An excellent administrator with a high level of integrity that knew the organization, and I think that's what we need. Not to disparage (Chief Schroeder), but as chief mentioned, he knew nothing about owning buildings, getting snow shoveled and lawn mowing. We need more of an administrator and less of a chief.”

Paulson also added that Esbensen had “burned some bridges” with the Thomson Township Volunteer Fire Department when he worked with the state fire marshal. Paulson did not attend the Wednesday, June 17, meeting.

During the meeting Wednesday, June 17, the board went into closed session for about 45 minutes. Details of the counteroffer were not disclosed, but after the closed session the five members present returned and voted to establish a subcommittee to negotiate with Esbensen.

The subcommittee members include board members Johnson and Harms, as well as CAFD Assistant Chief Roger Waters.

Waters will serve as chief on an interim basis following Schroeder’s retirement until a new chief is appointed.