President Barack Obama's health care reform plan relies heavily on a competitive market for insurance made possible by "exchanges" where consumers can compare plans either on the phone or over the Internet.

But the state, responsible for the exchange in California, will ironically waste money and put local taxpayers at risk if it moves forward with current plans for a call center here in the East Bay. As much as we'd like to see about 200 more jobs here, this is not the way to go about it.

Rather than operate the center directly, the state plans to subcontract to Contra Costa County, which would hire the workers and be responsible for their benefits. For starters, it's doubtful government can better and more cost-efficiently provide insurance information to consumers.

But, given that's the state plans to keep the work in the public sector, it should run the program directly, as it plans to in Sacramento and another Central Valley location. There are legitimate tasks it should delegate to local governments when they provide services specifically for their communities. This is not one of them. These call centers will provide statewide assistance. There's no reason to believe the county can do the job better.

Indeed, in Contra Costa, it's just the opposite. County officials say the deal calls for the state to pay Contra Costa 13 percent more than the state had projected. Even with that, local labor unions demanded concessions that would have driven up costs further. Fortunately, the county refused to deal.

Meanwhile, there seemed to be momentum building for a Richmond location for the call center until local politics got in the way of county supervisors' decision on a site. Now it's a fight between two influential property owners with buildings to lease, one in Concord, the other in Richmond.

If the state lets county supervisors pick -- as they plan to on Tuesday -- the decision may have little to do with which site best provides what's needed. Nor whether this is a fair deal for Contra Costa. It will be about the next round of campaign contributions.

There are also serious concerns from a local-taxpayer perspective. County officials say all labor costs will be covered by the state. But the county will be on the hook if contributions to these new workers' pensions prove inadequate. Or, if the state decides to move the center, the county will be left to lay off the workers.

Then there's the city of Richmond, which has decided to offer the prospective landlord there a $1 million loan of public funds to help him make his bid more competitive. Maybe that helps the state get a slightly better deal, but again it puts local taxpayers at risk.

This process has turned into a fiasco. If the call center is to be government-run, the state should be the operator -- choosing the location based on merit, not local politics, and accepting full responsibility for the costs and long-term liabilities of the workers.