Praise for Cuomo and a notable absence at Woodbury announcement (updated X 2)

Elected officials from both parties were there to cheer on Wednesday in Harriman as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the start of a $150 million interchange upgrade that Woodbury officials have sought for many years.

State Sen. Bill Larkin, a Cornwall-on-Hudson Republican who represents the area, stood with Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, a Forestburgh Democrat, to make remarks after the Democratic governor had spoken. Also in the audience to celebrate the planned reconfiguration of Route 17′s Exit 131 were Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, a Republican, and Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano, a Democrat.

Larkin passed some effusive praise across the aisle to Cuomo, who had just taken credit for pushing into motion a project that had been discussed for about 20 years.

“We all know what you can do, and we’re proud of you,” Larkin told the governor.

Conspicuously absent from the event, though, was the Democratic assemblyman who not only lives in Woodbury and represents the area, but who has pushed for the interchange improvements for years – James Skoufis. Skoufis had visited the Exit 131 area with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie two years ago while seeking funding in the state budget for the project, which was supposed to start in 2013 but which Cuomo set aside that year for other spending priorities.

Skoufis said on Thursday that the governor’s office didn’t invite him to the interchange announcement. He shrugged off the snub, which probably stemmed from his past criticism of Cuomo for vetoing twice a bill related to Kiryas Joel’s annexation and for the terms of the SUNY “free tuition” plan Cuomo introduced earlier this year.

(Update: Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said a regional representative for the governor’s office called Skoufis’ district office in Chester to invite him to Wednesday’s announcement, and was told that Skoufis knew about the event but couldn’t make it. ”The event came together quickly as it was pegged to a contract approved by the comptroller’s office ‎and, as is customary, local officials who were not included in the speaking program were invited to attend,” Azzopardi said by email. “A regional representative did ‎contact his Chester District Office and spoke with a staffer who said the assemblyman was aware of the event and could not attend.”)

(Update #2: Skoufis, in response to this explanation from Cuomo’s office, points out that the call to his Chester office was made at 12:10 p.m. on Wednesday, exactly five minutes before the Exit 131 announcement was set to begin. He texted photos of the call record on his office phone that backed up what he said.)

Also missing from the event were two mayors who have long : been involved in plans for the new highway exit – Michael Queenan of Woodbury and Steve Welle of Harriman. Both say they were invited, but couldn’t attend because of other commitments.

Welle said Friday that he was literally undergoing a root canal as the speeches were being made, but suffered a different sort of discomfort when he watched a video of the announcement later and heard Cuomo dismissing the years of discussion that had taken place without the work starting. He and other local representatives, along with various engineers at the Department of Transportation, had devoted much time and effort to figuring out how best to improve that very busy intersection near Woodbury Common Premium Outlets and Monroe-Woodbury schools. And now those labors were being belittled by Cuomo, Welle said. Plus, the project was completely redesigned without local input.

“A lot of people put a lot of time in, and it’s infuriating,” Welle said. “He’s the one who stopped the project from happening in 2013.”

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    Chris McKenna

    Chris McKenna covers Orange County government and politics for the Times Herald-Record. He has been a reporter at the newspaper since 1999. Read Full
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