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Signpost Cartoon c. Rudi Klimpert

letters, opinions, editorials

re: Bert, we hardly knew ye

For Bert Vendel, Husband of Deanna
21 Roadrunner Trail
December 25, 2009, Christmas Day

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, at around 9:30 in the morning, my husband, Dave, went to go run some errands. At around 9:35 he called from down the road, his voice thick. He was weeping.

“Bert died,” was all he could say.

Bert lived across the street. He was 59. He was a master gardener, a kind soul who really did look like Santa Claus, a biker with a heart as big as his Harley, and a classically good neighbor. We were not close friends, but something about his sudden passing hit us both hard, particularly my husband.

He came back to the house and we spoke for a little while outside. He told me that he’d met Vinnie and his wife, neighbors from down the street, who had told him that Bert had a heart attack and died on Christmas Eve morning at around 4:30 a.m.

“I was up at 4:30,” Dave said vaguely. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Did you hear something?” I asked.

“No, more like felt something,” he said. Over the years, I’d come to respect his “feelings” that way. He was uncannily sensitive.

When we spoke later, we tried to understand what had upset us so much. And we came to see that it was not about what will be missed as much as what was missed.

“I lost a friendship that was in the bank,” Dave said. “He was a friend that I never really enjoyed. There was always something that got in the way, some work, some errand, some weather, something. The ride we were gonna take together was always pending. And then it was gone.”

We had just gone to a neighborhood Christmas party together. Burt approached Dave in the room set aside for the bar and had, in typically generous fashion, offered some help with a kiva problem we’d been having. He had been thinking about it (without even being asked) and believed he had found a solution to putting in the grill we’d been struggling with. Dave was fielding another conversation and felt bad separating himself from the other fellow. So, noticing that Dave was a bit socially torn, Bert graciously said, “Well, I can see you’re involved in another conversation. We can talk about it later.”

He died within a few days. There was no later. We never got to hear his ideas.

Bert was a clever, industrious, kind-hearted man who would do anything to help a neighbor. He was also very humble. He had the most beautifully sculpted Southwestern garden we’d ever seen and every day as we walked our dogs past his house, there he’d be, hip deep in sand and prickly pear, turning something ordinary into something unique. And every time we told him so, he’d just laugh and say, “I just like playing in the dirt.”

Bert, we would like to have said many more things to you, heard many more things from you, seen what you would have created with that garden in the next few years, watched what you did with that beard as it reached your belt buckle, taken a ride or two with you and your wife and seen where we would’ve wound up.

We can’t pretend to know the grief and sorrow your family must be feeling right now and  we can’t imagine how big the hole your passing has left in the lives of those who knew you well and loved you deeply. We don’t know the divine plan, but in our time you were taken too soon, way too soon.

I think most eulogies, most deaths, most losses are about that—opportunities or conversations missed, things not said, times not had. They are often reminders that the clock is ticking, the hour is near and the opportunities are passing as we sit, busy with things that we think we must get done at the expense of the only things that count.

We salute you, Bert, as you ride down the ever-winding road to pastures more perfect than any garden we can ever create here, to conversations more illuminated than any we can conceive on this earth, to opportunities always fulfilled and a soul always satisfied.

You—and all those rides we might have taken together—will be sincerely missed.

 —Judith Acosta & Dave Heidt, 16 Roadrunner Trail, Placitas

re: letter to concerned citizens of Bernalillo and Town/County Administrators

What is the problem with the Town of Bernalillo? Why do some Town administrators and Planning and Zoning personnel seem threatened by me, Gustavo Leyba? Certain people have asked why I returned to Bernalillo after being gone for twenty-six years. Some individuals have concerns about my business ventures. Some town leaders have made it known to others that I will never succeed in establishing myself as a businessman in Bernalillo. I don’t understand why I am such a threat to certain individuals in this town, and why they would feel intimidated by my presence or my actions. I have met with certain personnel to begin my business proceedings, but I feel that I am being thrust into a stone wall because of certain people who have tried to sabotage my plans. I would like these individuals, who will remain nameless, to confront me face to face to air their concerns, and allow me to respond to their questions. I do not believe in talking behind people’s backs, and as some of the town personnel already know, I have spoken truthfully and aired my concerns in a straightforward manner. I believe my honesty has offended some people in the town offices, and I am being made to “pay” for my frank responses.

Why did I come back to the town I grew up in, attended school in, and graduated from, after having a successful experience in Las Vegas, Nevada? The answer to this question is family. My mother, whom the majority of you know as “the ice cream lady” and the favorite bus driver who retired from Bernalillo Public Schools, wanted to come home. I felt that I, as her caregiver, needed to grant her that wish. That is why I came back to Bernalillo, but in all honesty, I never expected this type of response to my moving back.

I began by purchasing the Coronado Building that was built in the early 1930s. This building was once a roller skating rink, where my mom and others from Bernalillo spent time skating. It was also a dance hall which started the career of one of New Mexico’s renowned singers, Al Hurricane. Later, the parents of Donna Montoya, co-owner of La Casita restaurant, Margaret and Manuel Lucero, established a bar which featured dancing for many years. After that period of time, it was converted into an office building by the Aboulsemans. They eventually sold it to Dale Patterson, a California native. He had allowed it to sit vacant for the last two-and-a-half years, before I purchased the building and decided to bring it “out of the grave” and back to life. Instead of having it continue to be an eyesore, I was planning to make it presentable and functional. The building had to have asbestos material removed, the electrical wiring needed to be upgraded, which is going on at present to bring it to code, along with other minor items that need to be addressed. I have tried to work with the Planning and Zoning Director, the Building Official / Floodplain Administrator, and the Fire Marshall, as well as the Planning and Zoning Committee.

The first project that I wanted to begin was an American Legion Post so I could help my fellow veterans. (Sandoval County has the second largest veteran community in the state of New Mexico.) The statue in front of the Court House is a wonderful reminder of the sacrifices our Vietnam vets made to this country, but I wanted to provide a meeting place where all vets could come together and socialize; reminisce; be helped to fill out paperwork, taxes, and VA forms; provide transportation to and from doctor’s appointments; become more involved with the community; etc.

Fortunately, someone shared with me that there was a group of people that would make sure that my plan would be blocked and would never get off the ground. I was only trying to give back the majority of any money generated to the community, as a nonprofit organization. But, unfortunately, I was informed that this group was going to fight me all the way on this project, and I decided to give up this idea because I would have to go into a lengthy, expensive legal battle—and a wealthy man, I’m not! I can tell you, many veterans were not happy with the way this was handled by the “powers that be” in Bernalillo!

My next idea was to restore the building into a banquet hall where the citizens of Bernalillo could rent it out for weddings, parties, birthdays, etc., and bring back live music to the old building. I presented my plans to the Planning and Zoning Committee, and they were approved for Bernalillo’s Banquet Hall.

Unfortunately, some administrators in the Town’s government are trying to find ways to again stop my dream of helping Bernalillo and giving Bernalillo something it needs and is lacking. The offices of Planning and Zoning have informed me of certain “new” things that need to be addressed that they are finding and stating as “building codes.” For instance, a fire sprinkler system that will cost me thousands of dollars that other, new commercial buildings, built recently in Bernalillo, with occupancy levels that do not meet the so-called 2006 Code, have been allowed to get away with. Older buildings which have been remodeled, added on to, etc., have not had to meet these codes. Why is this group of people requiring that I put in these systems when the other businesses haven’t had to? Why are strings being pulled by certain individuals to sabotage yet another project that I want to develop? Why don’t the Town Hall and the Court House have sprinkler systems installed?

Come on folks, why am I such a threat to you? Why are administrators putting obstacles in my way and trying to defeat and stop any project I put forth—especially when the Planning and Zoning Committee already approved the project? All I want to do is begin my business! I can create jobs for citizens in Bernalillo, help with the economic growth of the town, and restore this historic building into a memory for generations to come!

Please folks, if I am such a threat to the Town of Bernalillo, why don’t you confront me face to face? Why continue to play political games and continue to put up obstacle after obstacle in front of me?

—Gustavo Leyba, Bernalillo

Signpost Cartoon c. Rudi Klimpert

Update on ESCAFCA

—Press release dated Dec. 2

People are seeing a new tax for the Eastern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority (ESCAFCA) on their property tax bills. The ESCAFCA Board of Directors understands taxpayers’ concerns and the burden of increased property taxes during this historic economic downturn.

“ESCAFCA was created by the legislature to deal with a very serious flood control need in the region,” said Sal Reyes, ESCAFCA chairman of the board. “The board is carrying out what the legislature intended with ESCAFCA’s creation while being cognizant of the difficulties caused by added taxes. We are operating in a bare bones fashion, with a commitment to positively benefit all the residents in Eastern Sandoval County.”

This document should answer most questions, and if not, there is additional information available online at

Since its formal inception in November 2008, ESCAFCA has been working on eleven new flood control projects—five in Placitas, five in Bernalillo, and one in Algodones.

Additionally, ESCAFCA is working on zoning regulations and approval processes for new and expanding developments in the region.

How Did ESCAFCA Come About?

After serious flooding in the region in 2006, the New Mexico Legislature passed an act authorizing the creation of ESCAFCA to serve Bernalillo, Algodones, and Placitas; areas that were not being served by other flood control authorities.

The act authorized a levy of up to $2 per $1000 [2 mills] of net taxable value of property to operate the Authority. During public hearings in 2007 and 2008, a commitment was made to limit the operations levy to $1 per $1000 [one mill], rather than the two mills allowed by the act.

The act also authorized the borrowing of money to build projects, for which an additional levy may be made. The act also required the voters to elect a board and vote on a bond issue to borrow that money.

Initial engineering surveys identified $150 million in projects needed to prevent future flooding. During the public hearings, the needs were explained and a project list was proposed that would cost about $1.5 million per year to implement, which would be raised by selling bonds for $3 million every two years. To repay the debt, property owners would be assessed about $2.5 per $1000 [2.5 mills] of the net taxable value of their property. In addition to the debt assessment of 2.5 mills, the Authority would also be levying the operations assessment of one mill.

In November 2008, voters authorized the sale of $6 million in bonds to start building projects outlined in the master plans. A board of directors was also elected. The initial bond issue received support not only from the voters, but from the county commissioners, other flood control authorities, legislators, and business leaders.

In July 2009, $3 million in bonds were sold [money borrowed] to design and build projects. The levy to repay this debt was set at 2.50 mills, as projected. However, the actual collection will be 2.448 mills [slightly less than was projected]. The new ESCAFCA taxes first appeared on tax bills in November 2009.

How are ESCAFCA Taxes Figured?

On the tax bill, the amount shown as “Full Value” ”[sometimes called “Assessed Value”] is the value the County Assessor places on a property. It may or may not be what the home would sell for on the market, and is often much less than market value.

 “Full Value” is divided by three to arrive at the “Taxable Value.” Deductions are then made for head of household, veterans, disability, etc., to arrive at the “Total Net Taxable Value.“ This “Total Net Taxable Value” is multiplied by the “Tax Rate”[mill levy] to set the amount owed for each category.

For example, for a property with a “Full Value” of $100,000, the tax for debt service is $64.46 per year. Add to that the tax for operations of $26.33, and the total tax bill for ESCAFCA is $85.79 per year. Properties with “Full Values” greater than $100,000 are taxed proportionately.

What is ESCAFCA Doing with your taxes?

  • ESCAFCA has conducted a thorough topographic mapping of the Placitas area and is submitting Letters of Map Revision with detailed analysis to prove that floodplain limits can be significantly reduced. It is expected that 241 homes will be able to be removed from the current FEMA FIRM 2008 floodplain maps, meaning they would no longer be required to pay high flood insurance premiums. The savings to the homeowners would be about $300,000 per year.
  • ESCAFCA is working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Town of Bernalillo to rebuild and certify the Rio Grande levees. When completed, the new levees will prevent flooding from the river and remove hundreds of homes from the floodplain.
  • A comprehensive analysis of Las Huertas Creek is being done with recommendations to protect roadway structures, drainage structures, and high-pressure pipelines in the area.
  • The Athena Avenue Stormwater Detention Pond/Recreational Facility and Storm Drain Outfall to the Rio Grande will alleviate flooding to communities in the area.
  • A study to intercept storm water from the Sandia foothills to protect properties in Algodones.

For a full listing of current ESCAFCA projects and additional information, please visit

re: Wasteful spending comes as no surprise to many of the constituents of the Bernalillo Public Schools

It’s no wonder that the Legislative Finance Committee included Bernalillo Public Schools (BPS) in their audit of five districts statewide (Albuquerque Journal, 11/20/09) “School District Audits Reveal Waste” and (Santa Fe New Mexican, 11/20/09) “Audit: Suspect Spending In School Districts.” The wasteful spending that plagued the BPS is no surprise to the Bernalillo community and district officials.

On February 08, 2008, BPS Board members were informed by citizens of possible waste and fraud. On March 13, 2008, a petition about this was sent to state government leaders with 150 district constituent signatures. The state leaders forwarded the request to the NM Public Education Department.

The BPS Board acted defensively, failing in these matters to champion the public interest. They did not take the allegations to heart. As Board members, they are required to put aside personal political ambitions. Among the official powers and duties of a school board: “Section 22-5-7, NMSA 1978 E. - C. review and approve the school budget.; D. acquire, lease and dispose of property; and J. except for expenditures for salaries, contract for the expenditure of money according to the provisions of the Procurement Code.”

The district recently changed some procedures, but these should have been made quickly in response to citizen complaints. Finally, expenditure requests require board, superintendent and procurement approval. This is good. Why wasn’t this done earlier? Where does the buck stop? The governing board must accept their sworn duties to the constituents who elected them to do so: safeguarding public funds and the quality of education for our students.

—Chavez, Bernalillo


A ghost fire from the bygone days of Placitas

—Michael Crofoot

Above the Diamond Tail Estates development up on Forest Service land, there is a small group of the most remarkable juniper trees. It is hard to describe them, but I shall try. First, it is obvious that the trees are very old indeed, whose trunks were once nearly three feet in diameter. Some of the trees have axe marks on them. These tree trunks are narrowly fluted such that the trunks in cross-section are the shape of a long thin V. The open part of the V-shaped trunks face upslope towards the mountain and there are small strips of live bark running up the trunks here only on the upslope side leading to a little bit of green foliage above. Facing north down slope, the tree trunks have no bark and are very smooth to the touch, coming to a sharp point exactly facing down slope with at least two-and-a-half feet to a bare side. These dead parts of the age-old juniper trees facing down slope are black as the cold coals of a hot fire. Are these trees exactly what they appear to be—living remembrances of a long forgotten giant fire?

Maybe there was a great fire which burned up the Las Huertas Creek Bosque and then raced up the north flanks of the mountain around two hundred years ago. If so, it must have utterly changed the landscape all around the Village of Placitas. It would clearly have been a big stand replacing fire, which would have taken out the tall mountain forest and brought in the shrubby low foothill woodlands—burning out the big Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs and thereby helping the much smaller piñon pines and junipers to take their place.

When I came to Placitas ten years ago, it was September and the colored vegetation on the north face of the Sandias was various lovely shades of green. But as October went by into November, small brown islands appeared here and there up on the higher slopes amidst the vibrant dark greens. It turns out that the greens are small piñon and juniper forests and the brown islands are Gambel oak fields, whose green leaves turn brown, thus showing the change of seasons. I have been up there in the lower oak fields with friends and we have scanned the high slope lands there with strong binoculars. The lower Gambel oak islands that we were in are pure oak, and only oak. But upslope above these fields are more oak fields and creeping down into these high fields are single trees of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and maybe even white fir, with aspens high above. What is going on here?

From the U.S. Forest Service’s Plant Database we find that Gambel oak is a fire-adapted tree species—responding to fire by vegetative sprouting from the base and roots. So for me the answer seemed simple: the island fields of Gambel oak on the north face of the Sandia Mountains are giant fire scars, perfect evidence of a great fire. The Ponderosas and firs coming down the north slope now are merely the native mountain forest trying to re-establish itself.

There are other possible signs of this great fire. The so-called thin black line can be found along several places on the banks of the Las Huertas Creek. One such stretch is found in the south bank at the extreme east of the Placitas Open Space. Here a black carbon line one-quarter-inch thick runs for several yards exactly on the horizontal. It has about four inches of fine ash soil above it, and then above that are the soil and pebble layers so commonly seen along the Las Huertas creek banks. Another section of the thin black line can be found further upstream about two miles on the north bank of the Las Huertas near the very western border of the old Tawapa Commune. Again, this quarter-inch thick black line lies exactly horizontal and runs for several yards—only this time, the layer directly above it is composed of a deposit of small pebbles running to larger boulders with precious little soil between. I suspect this rocky layer just above the fire mark is sign of a huge erosion event, which could be expected from a river after a large fire burned up the surrounding Bosque and the slopes above it.

I talked about this possible great fire with the reigning elder of the north Sandia Mountains, Bob Cooper of the Cooper-Ellis Ranch, and also with a much respected Hispanic elder of Placitas, who will remain anonymous. Both men are in their 80s and have had lifelong interests in the history of the north Sandias. In general, there was complete agreement in their accounts. Both men had heard that there was a great fire that had burnt right up the north face of the Sandias, and that this happened sometime in the early 1800s. The Placitas elder had been told that the fire burnt up the Las Huertas creek from somewhere near Algodones and went right through the village of Placitas, which was then “abandoned after the fire for at least three years.”

There are some other signs and stories to help us imagine the effects of this great fire. One of the Anglo grand dames of Placitas told me that when she came to Placitas in the late 1950s, an old Hispanic man of Placitas told her that when he was a young boy, he went with some men of the village to help cut down the last small standing grove of Ponderosa pine trees—just below the fire station on Route 165! But wait, you might say—Ponderosas don’t grow that low in elevation. Well, actually they do! In New Mexico, scientists name seven life zones that range in elevation from desert to alpine. The third and fourth zones are called the piñon-juniper woodlands that run from five thousand to seven thousand feet and the Ponderosa pine life zone that runs from 6,500 to 8,500 feet. And wherever we see Ponderosas growing down a slope, we also see outlying solitary trees further down. But for me, the most telling sign of a great fire I have touched with my hands which came away blackened—the ancient burned Junipers I wrote about at the beginning of this article. Are there any other signs or stories of a great fire in the history of Placitas that readers can share? And if there was a devastating great fire here in near history, what does it tell us about the present landscapes to the north of the Sandia Mountains? More on this next time…

re: A Spandau Prison secret

Recently, my brother Mark sent me an email from Berlin, Germany. He was there on business and had dined in the district of Spandau. He remembered my stories about time spent as a U.S. Army Berlin Brigade NCO at Spandau Prison, where Rudolph Hess was held prisoner. His description of the restaurant roughly matched the gothic building built in 1876 and the one where I was assigned as sergeant of the guard.

After doing a little research, I found that the prison had been demolished shortly after Hess’s suicide in 1987 and the rubble spread in the North Sea. It was done in order to prevent the prison from becoming a memorial for neo-Nazis. What Mark had dined in was a new shopping centre that was built on the former prison grounds. The restaurant’s architecture was apparently modeled after the historic prison.

My recollections of Hess’s compound, the barracks, and mess where we were housed resonates a somewhat somber period in my citizen soldier career. Drafted during the Viet Nam war, I spend eighteen months in an infantry unit in West Berlin. Part of my duties involved guarding Rudolf Hess, one of seven Nazi war criminals who were brought to Spandau Prison. By 1966, he was the only prisoner left inside its walls. The four allied powers took turns guarding the prison. Despite some tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviets, the guard duty at the prison was never interrupted.

As sergeant of the guard, my responsibilities were limited to manning sentries in the six towers around the prison. During the day, Hess roamed freely throughout his lush prison garden. The number “seven” stenciled in black on the knees of his prison uniform represented, for him, the last of the convicted seven. At night, carbon arc lights, mounted in each of the six towers, were beamed throughout the compound.

Prison procedures prohibited speaking directly with Hess. He was acutely aware of this and would often approach the tower guards asking for favors such as a cigarette or some GI trinket. Article fifteens were swiftly administered to any soldier caught speaking or fraternizing with Hess. What Hess did not know was that we were completely unarmed. The magazines locked to our M14 rifles and side arms contained no ammunition. My secret was that I was thankful knowing that I would never have to fire my weapon.

On reflection, it was clear that by 1966, the Second World War had not ended and the Viet Nam war was heating up. Throughout East and West Berlin, there were constant reminders of both eras. Sections of the two cities remained in rubble. Fortifications along the Berlin Wall were constant reminders. Buildings such as Spandau Prison and the Reich building were visual reminders. Students for a Democratic Society were firmly entrenched at Berlin’s Free University, staging almost daily antiwar protests.

I am delighted that my brother Mark remembered to email me.

—Ron Sullivan,Placitas






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