Q&A with Matt Woods, chair of permanent school building committee

Milford resident Matthew Woods is an attorney with the law firm of Goldman, Gruder & Woods in Norwalk, where he chairs the firm's litigation practice. He is a UConn graduate and attended law school at Boston University.

Woods currently acts as Milford's Trial Counsel, and for the last 25 years has chaired the Permanent School Facilities Building Committee.

Woods and his wife Deborah have lived in Milford since 1982. They have two children, both of whom went through the Milford public school system.

Woods has a lot of  interesting information to share about his work in Milford.

Q. You have chaired Milford's Permanent School Facilities Building Committee, one of the city's longest-standing committees, for a quarter of a century. Can you tell us, first of all, does it make sense for this to be a standing, rather than an ad-hoc, committee? I know last summer we had a spate of projects, but are there usually enough to warrant such a committee?

A. Ad hoc committees are generally formed in school districts that have very infrequent projects. Since November of 1987, when I was first appointed chairman, we have finished 17 major renovation projects. East Shore Middle School, which we are currently in the process of renovating and expanding to the tune of $21 million, is the eighteenth.

In addition, we've done roof and window replacement projects, floor tile and asbestos abatement projects, and converted schools from oil to gas heat. So it would make no sense to have a separate ad hoc committee for each of these jobs; instead, we have a standing building committee that was created by the Board of Aldermen on May 6, 1974, consisting of two aldermen (one from each party), two Board of Education members (one from each party) and three private citizens, of which I am one. The committee of seven members is subject to change every two years with the election cycle. Even with some 35 people serving over the last 25 years, though, we have had quite a bit of continuity as officials who were not re-elected were able to serve as private citizens.

Q.  In the years that you have been involved with Milford's construction and growth, are there certain projects that stand out as success stories?

A.  One of our two high schools, Joseph A. Foran, underwent a three-phase renovation and expansion and an additional three-phase lead and asbestos abatement over the last five years. In the third phase we moved the front entrance of the school from its prior location to the actual front of the school. I think the Foran High School renovations were the most rewarding.

We have also done wonderful media center, classroom and cafeteria refurbishments to most of the elementary schools. Every project that ends with a ribbon cutting is a success story.

Q. What is the process for a building project to get off the ground?

A. The Board of Education initiates projects by determining what is needed in the district. Is the school overcrowded? Is the cafeteria or media center inadequate, or do the classrooms or grounds need updates? If so, the Board of Ed submits applications to the Board of Aldermen for funding. My building committee does not decide what gets built; we decide how and where to build. We have a general mandate as to the cost. We hire the architect and have him or her prepare a schematic of the scope of the project. These have to be approved. The architect provides 75 to 200 pages of construction drawings and specifications. The specs for the East Shore Middle School project, for instance, are six inches thick! The specs then go to the state for review and approval. Only after the state gives us the green light can we go out to bid. School projects, of course, must be publically bid on every plan that exceeds $7,500… which is every project. Bidding companies have to provide bid bonds and performance bonds. Meanwhile, there is the funding process - after the bids come in, the city funds the project; funds have to cover construction costs, soft costs during work (i.e. architect, materials testing, asbestos abatement monitoring companies, etc.) plus there is a financing component. So you can see the process is complicated.

Q. What are some of your responsibilities as Milford's Trial Counsel?

A.   I've been trial counsel just slightly shorter than I've been building committee chair - maybe 22 years. I was hired by the prior city attorney, who assured me I could continue as the building chairman. As Trial Counsel, I am responsible for representing the City in all its zoning appeals, its wetland appeals, tax lien foreclosures, etcetera. I generally consult with and assist the City Attorney and the Assistant City Attorney.

Much of what I do is related to property assessments. I deal with people who are dissatisfied with their assessments, appeal them, and end up in Superior Court. This last year, Milford had 112 properties which were appealed, all the way from Connecticut Post Shopping Mall to private homeowners. The bulk of appeals are eventually settled with a compromise, but some are decided by a judge. Tax appeals generally settle because the alternative - going before a judge, who is in all likelihood going to come up with a number between what the two sides are advocating anyway - is time consuming and expensive. So unless there is some fatal flaw in one side's appraisal (which hardly ever happens,) it makes sense to settle without full blown appraisals and trials, and all that.

I have also defended the city in a jury case regarding retaliatory discharge, and dealt with breach of contract claims, and so on.

Q. At your Norwalk law firm, do you focus on any particular area of law?

A. My experience is in many litigation fields, such as creditor's rights, employment, planning and zoning, tax appeals, construction law (including arbitration), land disputes, contract litigation, evictions and foreclosures. I have also worked on many personal injury and accident cases.

Q. As if you weren't busy enough, you are also one of three trustees of the Norma Pfriem Foundation. What is the foundation, and what is your role?

A. I was Norma Pfriem's attorney before she died in August 2005. She left her entire estate to the Foundation. The other trustees and I make about $5 million in disbursements each year. Norma directed us to dole out the money over ten years. She preferred strategic giving; she wanted to see her money buy things. For instance, Connecticut Hospice in Branford needed beds. She donated hospice beds that are like small cars with all kinds of electronic gadgetry in them. She purchased emergency generators -- things charities couldn't otherwise afford.

Right now we are in the 7th year of a 10-year disbursement. Our primary beneficiaries are Bridgeport Hospital Foundation, which operates the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center and the Norma Pfriem Cancer Institute. We give it about $2 million a year, most of which goes to overhead.

The next primary beneficiary is the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Bloomfield - we give them $1 million a year.

The third is CT Hospice, which receives $700,000 a year. The Discovery Museum, The United Congregational Church on Park Ave in Bridgeport, and Giant Steps, a school for autistic children in Southport, receive a total of $300,000 per year.

Secondary beneficiaries, which receive a total of $1 million per year, include The Kennedy Center in Bridgeport, Cardinal Sheehan Center, Bridgeport, CT Food Bank, Waterbury, CT Braille Association, Westport, Beth El Center, Milford, Boys and Girls Village in Milford, Council of Churches in Bridgeport, Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven, and Yale University School of Medicine.

At the Cancer Institute's Park Avenue Campus, a satellite location in Trumbull, we will be creating a healing garden similar to the one at Yale New Haven's Smilow Cancer Hospital.

Q.  How do you determine the beneficiaries of the Norma Pfriem Foundation?

A. We normally don't accept unsolicited requests for grants or else we would be bombarded; rather, we actively look for a specific need that we can fulfill by cutting a check. Norma once lived in Southport in a beautiful home by the water… she used to say, “Giving money to large charities is like bringing water from my sink, walking down to the shore and pouring it into the ocean.” She wanted to make an immediate, tangible difference. It's incredibly gratifying to follow in her footsteps.

Q. Do you have time for anything else?

A. I'm an avid mineralogist!

Q. Do you see yourself staying in Milford indefinitely?

A. Yes, I do plan to stay here. I grew up as an army brat - we moved all over the place. I wanted to stay in one place, raise my children in one town. This is by far the longest I have ever lived anywhere and I couldn't be happier.