This budget time is interesting,” an alderman told me when we ran into each other on the way into City Hall the other day. “Nobody likes what’s in front of them, but I’d expect just about everybody to vote for it because there’s not a lot they can do.”

Others could take issue with this line of thinking, but it appears to be widespread within the City Council. As 31st Ward alderman Ray Suarez puts it, “We don’t have much wiggle room.” And that’s the spirit that’s dominated the first week and a half of budget hearings. Aldermen have repeatedly expressed frustration at the city’s dire economic outlook and worried aloud about the impacts of slowed or reduced services. And they’ve asked lots of tough, informed questions of the commissioners of each city department, reducing some to awkward stammering while prompting others—the more experienced or savvy—to quickly dump the matter on an aide. Sometimes the aldermen even get answers. What’s largely missing from the budget hearings, though, is discussion about the budget.

To be sure, every once in awhile an alderman will use his or her allotted time with the mike to ask the commissioner on the hot seat why this particular line item is so much higher than it was a year ago, why we’re spending the money out of this tax fund, or why, if the department can do the same job next year with fewer employees, the extra people were on the payroll in the first place.

Far more common, though, are exchanges about what the department has or hasn’t done right by the alderman this past year. Often these discussions offer telling insights about a given department’s management and priorities. At least as often, by my unscientific reckoning, they simply provide the aldermen with an opportunity to demand more attention—or just bitch.

Consider Wednesday’s hearing with would-be leaders of the new Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which, if approved by the council, would be formed by merging the current departments of Business Affairs and Consumer Services, saving $2.3 million. Aldermen peppered the leaders of the two existing departments with pointed questions about the time it takes to get business permits processed, the number of black and Latino supervisors, the planning for an upcoming technology fair, and management of the Maxwell Street Market. Left untouched was the new department’s requested $17.7 million in spending.

Suarez, for example, was steamed that the department hadn’t called him to let him know a business in his ward was applying for a liquor license, even though he’d made his opposition clear. “How are you going to justify that?” he demanded.

“Alderman,” began consumer services commissioner Norma Reyes, “I—”

“I’m going to follow up on this thing. . . . If anybody in the City Council has something about liquor, you should know how I feel about liquor. . . . You’re e-mailing something and that’s sufficient? . . . I sent you guys a letter. You said you got it—somebody told me you had it—and you turn around, and I don’t know what justification you’ll find, you try to justify what I consider your mistakes. . . .”

“Absolutely, alderman.”

Suarez did ask what the elimination of several positions would mean for the department’s operations in 2009. Reyes said new technology and efficiencies should help the smaller staff avoid a decline in service. “Are we going to have times where people will think we’re taking a long time?” she said. “Absolutely. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Nirvana, nirvana, nirvana.’ But what I will say is that we do have a plan of attack.”

Suarez listened closely. “I want to thank you for your great work,” he said a couple of minutes later, “because I’m a very big fan of yours.”