The Central Contra Costa Sanitary District has reached a critical juncture. After years of excessive employee compensation and huge mounting debt, the current board of directors is working hard to restore fiscal rationality.

Without significant change, residents from Martinez through Lamorinda to San Ramon will face a doubling of their bills over the next decade. But labor leaders are resisting reforms and the two sides are locked in contentious negotiations.

It's against this backdrop that voters on Nov. 6 will fill three seats on the five-member board. Voters must make sure that ratepayers' interests are represented.

For that reason, we endorse Paul Causey and the re-election of Barbara Hockett and James Nejedly. While Hockett and Nejedly are longtime veterans, they have been part of the team pushing for reform during the past few years since financial excesses have come to light.

As for Causey, he brings expertise from 20 years as general manager of two other East Bay sanitary districts. He not only keenly understands district operations; he has a razor-sharp grasp of the salary and benefit problems.

Just how bad are they? Consider: The district operations budget has increased 24 percent over the past five years. Rates have gone up an identical amount in that time. Employee compensation is the key driver. When compared with 10 other public agencies, district salary and benefits are 23 percent above average.

For every dollar of payroll, the district spends another 61 cents for pensions. On top of that, most employees receive free health care coverage for them and their spouses while on the job and in retirement.

Retirement benefits alone account for 32 percent of the district's entire operating budget. Yet the district has failed to properly fund those generous programs. As a result, the pension and retiree health plans are currently underfunded by about $190 million. That's equal to nearly eight years of district payroll.

Past district administrators failed to warn of the problems, and they gave the board and the public misleading salary comparison data. To its credit, the board has since brought in outside experts to advise them and to represent them in labor negotiations.

Now that district leadership is on the right track, voters must make sure they keep moving in the right direction. While interviewing the candidates, we found that Tad Pilecki had unrealistic approaches to the problem and longtime county Planning Commissioner Richard Clark didn't grasp the magnitude of the cost for the rich compensation structure.

As for Deborah Hinkson, before retiring she was active in the union representing district employees. She was unavailable for our interview. But during her unsuccessful campaign two years ago, we found her unprepared and unconvincing. If voters want to bring district spending under control, they have three obvious choices on Nov. 6: Causey, Hockett and Nejedly.

ONLINE EXTRA
Go to www.contracostatimes.com/endorsements to view our list of voter recommendations and our Editorial Board video candidate interviews of various races.