When given the choice between a Volkswagen or a Rolls-Royce for the same price, most people would pick the latter.
That's essentially what's going on with pensions for employees of at least 117 Bay Area government agencies. Not only are their retirement packages extremely generous, they contribute little or nothing toward them.
As reporters Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis revealed in this newspaper Sunday, about 35 percent of Bay Area government agencies not only pay the employer share of pension costs, they also kick in part or all of the employee portion.
The so-called "pickup" of the employee share cost taxpayers more than $221 million last year for 63,000 public workers, an average $3,500 per employee. For public safety workers, the average pickup was about $5,200.
To understand this, consider local government police and firefighters with retirement plans administered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the nation's largest pension plan.
The cost of their pensions is roughly 38 cents for every $1 of payroll. That number is expected to rise to about 45 cents in fiscal year 2015-16. The employee share of that cost is officially set in state law at 9 cents.
Employers, also known as taxpayers, are responsible for the rest. But many employers also cover part or all of the employee share. Of the 117 Bay Area public agencies with pension pickups, 15 pay the entire share for all their workers.
BART stands out in the survey as the largest employer paying the entire cost. Transit district directors must fix that during current labor negotiations.
Many agencies try to defend the practice as merely another benefit handed out as part of collective bargaining, perhaps in exchange for salary concessions.
There are many problems to that argument. First, there's little evidence to support that most public-sector workers are underpaid when compared with comparable private-sector employees. Second, the pension pickup is a hidden cost, often not mentioned in salary surveys.
Third, and most significant, the partial or full subsidization of the employee pension share leaves workers with little or no "skin in the game." They have little financial incentive to help find ways to reduce pension costs because they are not sharing the burden. They can get the Rolls for the same price as the Volkswagen.
Local government officials love to blame Sacramento for rising pension costs. Some of that complaining is justified. Much of it is not, and certainly not in this case.
No one forced them to offer pension pickups. Elected officials who continue to agree to these costly deals should be voted out of office.