The stage was set Tuesday for a major political showdown over pensions for San Diego municipal workers.
Reform advocates are launching a petition campaign for a measure they claim would save $363 million within five years.
The proposed initiative is aimed at the June ballot next year.
It would put new city employees, except for police officers; into so-called 401(k) defined contributions retirement plans.
The current defined benefits system has a $2 billion deficit, and is draining money from vital municipal services.
"This initiative will not only reform our pension system, but transform it into a national model," Mayor Jerry Sanders declared at a noon-hour kickoff news conference on Civic Center Plaza. "For too many years, taxpayers in San Diego have been forced to watch as city employees retire with benefits that are more generous than their own."
Added Councilman Carl DeMaio: "This is a big deal. And this is a good deal for San Diego."
Local business and civic leaders were on hand to help launch the petition campaign -- already having backed a pension reform proposal by DeMaio that created no exemptions for public safety workers.
Under a compromise yesterday with the mayor, who had a competing plan, new police hires would be entitled to current retirement benefits.
That left firefighters and lifeguards subject to the 401(k) approach.
The measure also would cap city employee salaries for 5 years, and lock in base pay as the benchmark for pension calculations.
In response, city employee union leaders say their members are being scapegoated for past management abuses of the retirement system, and used as political piñatas in a run-up to an election year.
"It's a mayor's race going on," said Joan Raymond, president of Local 127 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "The only real winners here in this type of plan will be Wall Street."
The rank-and-file also don't trust the rosy financial projections being made by the initiative's backers.
Frank De Clercq, president of San Diego City Fire Fighters Local 145, warned that the measure could cost the taxpayers an additional $320 million before it shows savings.
"So let's run the numbers," De Clercq said. "Let's do the financial analysis on all of this and see if it's actually going to be good for the city or not."
With the initiative being touted as a blueprint for other cash-strapped, pension-saddled cities across the country, major campaign spending by business and labor interests figures to come into play -- along with legal challenges if the measure passes.
It'll take 94,000 voters' signatures within six months for the proposal to qualify for the June, 2012 ballot.