Diplomat Drivers Irk New York

Only in New York could parking tickets threaten foreign policy.

Thanks to an 11th-hour call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city of New York did not impound the cars of the many foreign consulates that face outstanding parking fines from the city.

Bloomberg had threatened the international scofflaws with a midnight deadline before he would call in the tow trucks, but the State Department warned that Bloomberg's decision could have hefty repercussions for U.S. diplomats serving abroad.

Bloomberg's argument — passed like a torch between New York's mayors — is that the parking tickets collected by these foreign diplomats is a problem too large to ignore. By the Bloomberg's accounting, the city is owed $21.3 million in fines dating back to 1997. The State Department puts the figure closer to $10 million, saying that the city is including interest and registration violations that can't be levied against diplomats.

Reduce and Enforce

The agreement in principle reached between the State Department and the city would ease the parking crunch by reducing the number of consular licenses and getting federal assistance in collecting outstanding debts. Each mission or consulate would be granted between one and three spaces outside U.N. headquarters, but the city reserves the right to take spaces away if a country tallies too many tickets. All other diplomatic cars will have to fight for spaces just like everyone else in the city.

About 1,600 diplomats have State Department-issued licenses that grant them immunity from parking tickets and allow them only to be towed in case of emergency. The city's problem is with the 700 consular-licensed cars that don't have immunity and were nearly towed en masse last week. The deal brokered between the city and the State Department could bring the number of diplomatic decals closer to 500.

"It's an incentive for employees to obey traffic laws and pay parking tickets, or their boss will lose his privileges," said an official with the U.N.-U.S. mission, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a good deal for New Yorkers."

Doing Their Best

For their part, the diplomats have tried to work with city. At the beginning of the year, Indonesia's ambassador announced that its mission and consulate employees would have to pay their own tickets, which previously were paid by the embassy or ignored. The embassy, headquarters to 29 diplomats with more than 50 cars, was granted four parking spots by the city. Employees at the Indonesian consulate said they are forced to double-park on their two spaces daily.

"You can't avoid that," said mission spokesman Tatang Razak. "We're trying to respect the city, but we hope the city understands our problem too."

The contention by diplomats is that their service and allegiance is to the United Nations, not New York, and that the benefits and honor of being home to the U.N. headquarters should outweigh the burden of playing host to thousands of diplomats and their chauffeurs.

Shame and Discipline

Never ones to cede their parking spots easily — let alone their sovereignty — New Yorkers have been riled by the diplomats' parking for decades. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., championed legislation last year that forces the federal government to withhold aid from countries that leave New York with five-digit debt. So far the law has not been enforced.

The United States forces its diplomats serving abroad to pay parking tickets to the city they're owed, said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, and the same goes for foreign diplomats in the United States.

"It's the our belief that all diplomatic and consular officials in the United States must abide by our laws and pay all legitimate traffic and parking fines," Reeker said.

Indonesia owes the city about $940,000 on more than 8,000 tickets issued since 1997, ranking it fourth on a list the city published last week to shame the worst offender. At the top of the list: Egypt, which owes $1.9 million on more than 18,000 tickets; Kuwait, which owes $1.2 million on more than 11,000 tickets; and Nigeria, which also owes $1.2 million on 10,000 tickets.

For its debt, Egypt averaged nine tickets a day, everyday, for more than 5 ½ years. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, Egypt has received more than $24 billion in aid from the United States since 1975.