PUBLIC EMPLOYEE pension spiking put the tiny Moraga Orinda Fire District on the national map 18 months ago.

Three days before outgoing Chief Peter Nowicki announced his retirement, the district board approved contract amendments that enabled him to boost his pension $40,000 a year. As a result, Nowicki converted his $185,000 annual salary into a $241,000 starting yearly pension.

John Wyro was among the directors who approved those contract changes. As recently as this week, he continued to insist the contract amendments made little difference. He has publicly challenged our numbers. Even after his new fire chief verified our calculations, Wyro continued to insist we were wrong. We weren't.

That sort of insular denial from Wyro and his board colleagues helps explain how the district, after just 13 years in existence, has run up a staggering $53 million unfunded liability for promised pension and retiree health benefits. Put another way, it would take about three years of district revenues just to pay off that debt.

Residents of both cities should be angry. They pay top dollar for the district's fire protection and ambulance service. The district spends more each year than the city governments of Orinda and Moraga combined. In coming years, more of that money will be siphoned away to pay off employee benefit debt.

It's time to change leadership. Unfortunately, Wyro, a leader in the district's formation who has been on the board most of the time since, is the only director up for re-election this year who faces opposition.

His challenger in Division 4, Orinda Planning Commissioner Bob Jungbluth, understands the need to restore transparency and fiscal discipline to a district that is financially out of control.

He recognizes that he represents the residents and points out that firefighters receive retirement benefits far superior to those enjoyed by the taxpayers footing the bill. Jungbluth admits he doesn't understand all the intricacies of the district's pension program. There again, neither does Wyro after all these years. We hope Jungbluth learns quickly.

Division 4 is fully contained in Orinda. Some activists and officials in the city insist Orinda residents pay more than their fair share, and have been clamoring for the district to divert money for city road and infrastructure improvements. But, given the district's debt, neither candidate held out hope for that.