Five California mayors are campaigning to put a measure on next year’s statewide ballot to let local governments change retirement benefits for current public workers.

The effort, needing more than 807,000 petition signers to qualify, wouldn’t alter pension and health-care benefits that the employees have already earned, the mayors of San Jose, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Pacific Grove said yesterday.

“Many of California’s public-employee retirement plans are simply unsustainable and it’s in everyone’s interest to provide the tools to fix the problem now before even tougher actions are necessary,” San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said in a statement.

Surging retirement costs have hobbled California cities since the recession, contributing to municipal bankruptcies in Vallejo, San Bernardino and Stockton. The runaway costs stem from decisions made by elected officials when stock markets were soaring and retirement funds were running surpluses. Benefits were boosted to retain and recruit new workers.

The proposal “breaks the promise of a secure retirement made to millions of Californians, many of whom are ineligible for Social Security and have an average pension of $26,000 per year,” Dave Low, chairman of the labor-backed Californians for Retirement Security, said in a statement.

‘Unilateral’ Cuts

“It will allow public employers to unilaterally cut the retirement benefits promised to current teachers, firefighters, police officers and school-bus drivers,” said Low, whose organization represents more than 1.6 million current and former public workers.

The mayors aim to put the initiative on the November 2014 ballot, when voters will select the governor and the state’s members of Congress.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. pension fund, condemned the proposal.

“The courts have clearly established that California public employees have a vested right to the level of benefits promised to them when they are first employed,” Calpers said in a statement. If the ballot measure passes, “then all contractual rights in California could be in jeopardy.”

Voters in San Jose, California’s third-largest city, approved a ballot initiative in June 2012 allowing current employees to pay more to keep their existing retirement plan or switch to a more modest plan, while steering new employees into a lower-cost plan. Unions challenged the measure in court.