Both Milford mayoral candidates wore dark suits, light shirts and colorful ties to the Plymouth Men's Club debate Tuesday night. But for the most part, that's where the similarities ended between incumbent Democrat Ben Blake and his challenger, Republican Peter Spalthoff.

The two candidates had different ideas as to how Milford has fared in the last two years, and they even disagreed on whether the city's population has risen or declined.

In his opening remarks, Blake said Milford is in better shape today than when he became mayor two years ago. “That's partly because each day I work very hard for the city I love,” he said.

Blake told debate-goers that he's re-negotiated bonds to save money, streamlined government operations, increased recycling, backed lean budgets and supported needed school renovations in the past two years. He said the building permitting process is about to take a drastic turn toward the better and he's taken steps to lower energy costs.

Spalthoff challenged that. “You say the city is better, I'm not so sure,” Spalthoff said.

Spalthoff raised eight areas of concern: Eisenhower Park, which he said the city should be improving; North Street property he said the city should have bought but didn't; the transfer of reserve funds to keep taxes stable in an election year, but no transfer the year before and the need for a downtown parking garage.

Completing the list of eight is repairs at Beaverbrook Park, where fire destroyed a boardwalk last year; settling matters with the East Side firehouse contractor, who was late in finishing the job; an overrun on costs for the East Shore Middle School renovation project, and finally, the dog shelter, which Spalthoff is worried may be moved to Stratford.

Blake commented on some of those issues during the more than hour long debate, such as the Beaverbrook boardwalk. He said the city just applied for a grant to rebuild it and is hopeful the money will come through. About transferring funds to keep taxes low this year, Blake said a mayor has to use whatever tools he has to control taxes.

“I've done 10 city budgets,” Blake said, which includes those he worked on when he was an alderman. “I know what we have and don't have.”

Money was transferred into this year’s budget because there was a $5 million budget surplus from the year before, and the year before that the surplus wasn’t quite as large, he said.

“Shifting of funds is absolutely responsible,” Blake said, pointing out that past mayors often transferred funds from the undesignated fund balance at budget time.

The city aims to keep 5% of its budget in that fund for emergencies, and that would amount to about $10 million. Blake said there is currently $25 million in the undesignated fund balance between assigned and undesignated dollars.

Spalthoff said he wasn't criticizing Blake for using money from the undesignated fund balance but rather for not using enough. He said that since there are sufficient funds in that account, he would have taken $8 million, rather than $5 million, and used $5 million to keep taxes low and the other $3 million to pay other bills or help needy groups, like the Boys & Girls Club. Spalthoff also said the city might have used some of its funds to loan money to storm victims to start home repairs rather than wait for the federal government to come through with money.

Blake said he spends time every day dealing with the aftermath of Storm Sandy and other storms that hit during his tenure, working with government agencies to get funds to residents, talking with Washington D.C. officials about building jetties to help protect against future storms and talking about other measures to protect the city from future storm damage.

“Right now everything is centered around Sandy,” Blake said, responding to a question about Milford's biggest hurdles. “We still have hundreds of people out of their homes.”

He said people need money to rebuild, and the city needs to make sure the permitting process lets them do that. Blake said his recent appointment of a new building official should make the building department “state of the art” and begin moving the permitting process along in all areas.

Spalthoff said he thinks the biggest issue Milford has to address is its schools. While Blake said Milford's population is growing, Spalthoff insisted it is declining, and he noted that school enrollment is declining.

“People are not buying or refinancing,” Spalthoff said, “so we're seeing an outflow.”

Spalthoff elaborated later, saying that he thinks the schools are in disrepair, adding that quality schools attract home-buyers. He also questions the way the school board is putting money into the schools without a solid plan to address a student enrollment decline.

Spalthoff also said schools should return to a grades K-5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 12 format, as they were before the elementary schools were broken into grades K-2 and 3-5.

Blake argued that the city's overall population is growing and that school population is cyclical. He said the school board's long term planning report should be done by December.

According to an online source, which cites the U.S. Census Bureau, Milford’s population has stayed relatively flat since 2000, though it rose and then dropped slightly between 2000 and 2011. In 2000, population was 52,675, peaked in 2009 at 56,424, and then dropped to 52,675 in 2011. The U.S. Census Bureau lists the population at 51,488 for 2012. City officials in the past, however, have said those numbers don’t always include Woodmont, which has a population of about 1,500.

Former Economic Development Director Robert Gregory said the only solid figures come during a census year, and the last census was in 2010.