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Polk County replaces loader that fell through ice in December; but not fired driver

Polk County has replaced the big loader that fell through the ice of the Red Lake River at Crookston in late December. The mishap got the driver fired. (Photo courtesy of Polk County Highway Department)

Polk County has replaced the big loader that fell through the ice of the Red Lake River at Crookston in late December in a mishap that got the driver fired. That position remains unfilled.

Richard Sanders, Polk County engineer, said the county bought a new 2009 John Deere 544 loader for $128,000 from RDO Equipment in Grand Forks. That's only about $1,000 more than the county paid two years ago for the 544 loader that longtime employee Mike Raymond drove onto the frozen Red Lake River in late December, only to see the 9-ton behemoth sink to the muddy bottom in 6 feet of water.

The county's insurance paid out $116,000 for the loader and nearly $10,000 more for the county's cost in retrieving the loader and some repairs done to it. But the costs of the retrieval and repairs were greater than the insurance claim, said Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell.

The actual retail price of the loader is about $150,000 or more, but the county has the advantage of buying equipment through large state contracts, Sanders said.

The water-logged loader was sold by the insurance company for about $65,000 to the Forest River (N.D.) Community of Hutterites, which runs a large farming operation near Fordville, N.D., and is known for its expertise in salvaging old buildings and equipment.

Raymond was removing snow early on a Monday morning, Dec. 29, from county parking lots in Crookston with the payloader when he said he took a break to go down to the Red Lake River a few blocks away to clean the snow off the city's boat ramp.

He was just doing a favor for the city and the people, including him, who use the frozen river for fishing in the winter, he said.

Once he got the loader on the concrete, sloping ramp, it slipped all the way on to the river, then broke through the ice, he said.

Raymond called 911, unable to get out, with water coming into the cab of the loader.

Raymond's actions were an unauthorized use of county equipment and employee time, Sanders said. And it could have been much worse, with Raymond getting hurt or losing his life, Sanders said.

It took divers and hours of work to get the loader pulled out.

The fact that Raymond himself had one of the several fish houses on the river near the landing gave the appearance, at least, that he may have been trying to clear a path through the unusually heavy snow on the river, county officials said at the time.

Raymond denied that he was clearing the snow for his own benefit.

Raymond told the Herald he was fired Dec. 30, after nearly 28 years working for the county highway department.

His last chance to file an appeal was Friday. But he didn't.

"I resigned," he said today. "I'm driving semi-truck. Hauling sugar beets."

He hasn't been ice fishing since he went through the ice, Raymond said.

Raymond's position has not been filled yet, Sanders said this past week.