Monday, December 12, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — For years, United Nations diplomats were notorious for running up millions of dollars in parking tickets, then just laughing at the city’s attempts to collect. Diplomatic immunity meant there was little U.S. courts could do about it.

But the city’s thousands of foreign officials have largely changed their ways since a threatened crackdown three years ago.

According to New York’s finance department, diplomats have gotten 90 percent fewer tickets since late 2002, when the U.S. threatened to revoke the plates of scofflaws and subtract however much they owed in fines from the foreign aid their countries received.

Those who do get citations have gotten better about paying them. Of the 11,771 parking violations issued to diplomats in the past three years, 87 percent have been paid or successfully appealed, the city said.

“When diplomats do receive tickets, they are contesting and paying them just like regular New Yorkers,” said Finance Commissioner Martha E. Stark.

On Thursday, the only obvious parking violators near the United Nations appeared to be cars bearing regular New York plates illegally parked in spots reserved for diplomats.

But that has not always been the case.

From April 1997 to October 2002, holders of diplomatic plates racked up 205,732 parking tickets in New York. About $18.1 million of those fines have yet to be paid.

The tally so outraged Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that he threatened to tow diplomatic vehicles and sell them.

His successor, Michael R. Bloomberg, cut a deal with the State Department in 2002 to get tough on the scofflaws.

“Nothing gets New Yorkers more angry then when diplomats think they can live by different rules than the rest of us,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who pushed through a renewal of the legislation allowing unpaid taxes and fines to be deducted from aid payments.

So far, the measure has been less successful in helping the city collect $200 million in property taxes that it says are owed by foreign countries.

Embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions are generally tax-exempt, but New York has insisted that it can tax parts of buildings used for nondiplomatic purposes, such as housing or restaurants.

The city has been tied up in court for two years with India, the Philippines and Mongolia over their respective tax bills of $27.8 million, $29.6 million and $3.4 million.

Robert A. Kandel, an attorney for those countries, said most of that purported debt is interest on disputed bills that are years or decades old.

“These foreign governments are very respectful of the city’s obligations and are not taking these positions casually,” he said.

Federal law allows U.S. aid money to be deducted only after a court renders a final judgment in a tax dispute, which has yet to happen.

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