Berkeley's retirement programs for city workers are $570 million underfunded, a debt that works out to about $5,000 for each city resident. In Oakland, the $2.2 billion shortfall equals about $5,500 per resident. Richmond's $539 million averages $5,100 per resident.

These sums should shock taxpayers. We're passing debt onto future generations. While those cities rank among the most heavily burdened in the East Bay, other local governments also face long-term financial struggles exacerbated by huge unfunded liabilities.

Unfortunately, two months of interviews leading up to Tuesday's balloting for local offices in Contra Costa and Alameda counties revealed that most incumbents and challengers did not understand the problem.

Almost none knew the size of retirement debts for the agencies they hoped to govern. The majority had no understanding of what an unfunded liability was, and few understood the implications. It was scary.

This burden hangs over local government like a giant credit card balance. Installment payments must be made every year, siphoning away funds that could otherwise go for needed services -- such as road repairs, more cops on the street, parks and recreation programs and help for the needy.

But most seeking office had no idea the magnitude of the annual costs, which are akin to the minimum payments on that credit card, nor the full balances due. Elected officials can't begin to solve a problem until they understand it. Most don't.

We were stunned by the continuing ignorance. On the editorial page, we take our endorsement of candidates very seriously. As part of the process, we review how the local agencies are performing. Currently, most face serious financial problems, partially of their own making, partially because of the economic downturn most failed to guard against.

The question going forward is whether elected officials have learned from past mistakes. Unfortunately, most have not studied what happened nor taken the time to learn the basics about retirement program finances.

It's easier to seek endorsement by talking about cutting waste in government, digging into the budget to find savings and increasing tax revenues by attracting more businesses. If only it were that easy.

Candidates like to talk about how many (unnamed) people asked them to run, and how they want to give back to their communities. We told them from the onset that we didn't want to hear those pat answers. We expected more.

Yet time and time again, they walked in, sat down and were clueless when we asked about finances and debt burdens. Our questions were predictable. Anyone who has read these editorial pages should know what we care most about: responsible financial planning that protects the ability to provide needed government services.

We are not anti-tax crusaders. Far from it. For Tuesday's election, we endorsed 14 of 22 tax measures on East Bay ballots. We are not anti-union. We opposed Proposition 32, the measure to gut their political influence. We are not political conservatives: For two presidential elections in a row, we have endorsed Barack Obama.

But we expect fiscally responsible behavior. When it comes to retirement programs, the benefits should be reasonable and affordable, and the accounting should be realistic and honest, with a fair distribution of the burden between employees and taxpayers.

Yet, in Berkeley, city employees, excluding police and fire, pay nothing toward their lucrative pensions. In Concord, taxpayers not only pay the much larger employer share toward pensions, they subsidize the employee portion. Clayton and San Leandro workers make no contributions.

At BART and in the small community of Kensington, employees pay nothing toward their pensions, and can also retire after just five years with lifetime health care.

We're not trying to do away with traditional defined benefit pensions, as some have falsely claimed. We're trying to ensure that they don't break local government.

Toward that goal, we will continue to support candidates and elected officials who take the time to understand the system and work toward fixing it. Unfortunately too many don't want to be bothered.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Contact him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/borensteindan.