Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

LONG BEFORE Election Day last fall, insiders figured out that a proposed library district—admittedly, a boon for Multnomah County—would wreck the City of Portland's budget.

But county officials were quick to say soothing things about working with their municipal partners, and no one in city hall (publicly at least) dared speak out against something so feel-good as kids and literacy.

So the library district passed—overwhelmingly, after raising and spending well more than $1 million in contributions. And the city found itself—thanks to the voodoo of property tax "compression"—staring at a $10 million budget hit that accounts for just less than half of its overall $25 million shortfall.

The fallout of that campaign is now playing out rather awkwardly in the halls of power. And as city officials contemplate layoffs and pay freezes and program cuts, some are keenly aware that one group—more than most—is in the middle:

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

AFSCME represents a couple thousand county workers, including library employees; good news for the county is good news for those members. But the union also represents a few hundred city workers whose jobs and pay, in turn, would wind up on the chopping block. The union grasped the conflict, but dipped into its bank account all the same, pouring something like $100,000 into a campaign that arguably would have been fine without it.

"It was a hard month or so of really talking back and forth about what we were going to do," the union's statewide political director, Joe Baessler, told me.

As for how those deliberations went down?

"We were feeling like the city had the reserves if it had to take a hit," Baessler says. "And the county was having massive cuts every year. If the library district didn't pass, there would be huge layoffs. It was an unspecified question mark for the city."

That question mark has since become an expensive exclamation point. City officials aren't interested in tapping reserves. Instead, they're quietly hoping AFSCME might lean on the county to help the city. County Chair Jeff Cogen has remained relatively sphinx-like on the matter, even as city hall pines for something dramatic.

The city might want to shelve those hopes. Baessler says he "would really like the county to help the city in any way possible." But he's not all that sympathetic.

"Cogen didn't promise the city would be held harmless," Baessler says. "He said he wanted to talk about solutions and come up with a way to soften the blow."

Baessler also points out the remaining $15 million the city is looking to plug—thanks to federal reform of the police bureau and the city's decision to fund safety net programs.

"In terms of cuts and layoffs and other things, it's been a fight for the past couple of years," Baessler says. "[The city is] using the library district as a really nice scapegoat."