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Polk County snowplow driver fired

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CROOKSTON -- The man who drove the county's loader onto then through the ice into the Red Lake River early Monday here in Central Park was fired today.

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"It looks to me like I lost my job," Mike Raymond said. "Today, they sent me a letter. It pretty much tells me I'm done, but I can appeal if I want."

He's worked for the Polk County Highway Department for almost 28 years.

"He was a good employee," said Richard Sanders, head of the department, pointing out Raymond's long tenure since being hired in 1981. But Raymond clearly violated the department's work rules in a big way, he said.

Sanders met today with other county officials about Raymond's deed, and decisions were made, although all the details aren't finalized, he said. Nothing official will be said publicly yet about Raymond's fate, except that he is on paid administrative leave and would be disciplined, Sanders said.

But Raymond told the Herald about his pink slip.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said.

Raymond was working a graveyard shift moving snow off the parking lots of county buildings when, in the early hours of Monday, he decided to drive the nine-ton John Deere 544 loader about five blocks to Central Park and clear snow off the city's boat ramp used in the winter by ice fishermen to put their fish houses on and off the river.

Several fish houses are within a few dozen yards of the boat ramp, and some were in use today. One man could be seen slipping outside his fish house this afternoon to urinate in the middle of the frozen river in the center of town.

Another man said the fish weren't biting today.

An older man and a young boy pulled a sled filled with fishing supplies down the boat ramp, walking past the hole left by the loader, to their fish house, hunched against the below-zero temperature and bitterly cold northwest wind.

Raymond said he decided to clean snow off the boat ramp to help out everyone who uses the river in the winter but acknowledges it wasn't his job or the county's.

The loader slipped down the ramp, onto the ice and sank into the river, he said.

It was 2:15 a.m. Monday when Raymond called 911 from the partly submerged cab of his loader.

Raymond has a fish house on the river, too, a few yards from the ramp. But he wasn't clearing a path to his fish house, as some said on TV news reports, he said.

Sanders won't say much about it, but it's clear he's not entirely sure of the accuracy of Raymond's account of how the loader ended up in the river.

The loader was about 20 feet from the boat ramp when it broke through the ice and settled down to the bottom, submerged about six feet into the water and mud. The water line could be seen today, about a foot up the window in the cab, and the tall tires obviously had been sunk into mud. The engine was submerged, although it kept running for hours until it was pulled out about noon today, Sanders said.

The starter and battery were damaged by the water and pulled off today, after the loader thawed out in the county shop. Water got into the transmission, so that has to be fixed, and the hydraulic system might have to be redone, too, but so far, it appears the engine did not take on water, Sanders said. Some lights were broken, and the bottom step on the ladder into the cab was bent badly, and one tire got serious rips, probably from some rocks or cement pieces in the river, he said. There's no final estimate yet on what the cost of all the damage will be, he said, but it easily will amount to thousands of dollars in parts and labor.

The loader was bought new less than two years ago, on a special deal through a state contract, for $127,000 but would have cost about $150,000 at retail prices, Sanders said.

It took about five hours for a private contractor in town using a loader and a back hoe to pull the loader out of the river, and that will cost about $1,500, Sanders figures. It also required the county's dive team to help hook up the chains.

Sanders said the incident clearly was an unauthorized use of county equipment by Raymond during a time he was supposed to be working on county parking lots moving snow during the graveyard shift. The worst aspect of it all was that Raymond easily could have been killed if the water had been much deeper and the loader had tipped over, Sanders said.

He's never had this drastic a misuse of county equipment by an employee, Sanders said. But there was enough of a problem that he had to make things clear last year to employees.

A year ago, Sanders sent out a memo on the subject, so all 35 employees of the department would be clear about the policy prohibiting personal use of county equipment.

"It has been brought to my attention that individuals are using Polk County equipment for personal use and are continuing to smoke in Polk County vehicles," Sanders wrote in his memo dated Dec. 19, 2007, to all highway department employees.

"There is a current policy in place for use of county-owned small equipment. You are to ask (he names two supervisors) for their use. Large equipment such as trucks, motor graders, loaders and tractors, etc., is not to be used under any circumstances. Such use will result in immediate discipline, which may include termination."

Raymond, who is in his early 50s, grew up and attended high school in Crookston. His father worked for the state highway department.

Raymond didn't go ice fishing today.

"I didn't really feel like it," he said. "Besides, it was a low-pressure system today. Fish don't bite when it's a low-pressure system."

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