The polite manhunt has been going on for decades in the city that is home to the United Nations: trying to collect fines from diplomats who ignore parking tickets.
How many tickets are outstanding? More than 200,000, totaling more than $21.3 million. Only $160,682 had been collected since 1997 through the end of last year.
On Monday, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration announced its latest threat: Vehicles belonging to consular officials who owe more than $230 in parking fines during the last two years may be towed, impounded and even sold at auction.
"The importance of compliance with the city's parking regulations cannot be overstated," Commissioner of Finance Andrew S. Eristoff said in a letter to more than 100 consulates.
The U.S. State Department, as it does every time New York City threatens a crackdown on the diplomats, expressed concern.
"Any actions undertaken by the city that might conflict with our international treaty obligations must be avoided," State Department spokesman Andy Lanine said.
Lanine said the department had offered to work with the city on an expedited basis to develop a "mutually beneficial program" to deal with the problem.
City officials said they would welcome a quickened dialogue with the Bush administration as the number of tickets continued to grow. "They [State Department officials] always get real nervous whenever we try to get the councilors to abide by basic quality of life standards that you think they would want to abide by," Giuliani said. "'That's always been a difficulty with the State Department."
Eristoff said the city would not begin towing until Aug. 1 to give time for fines to be paid.
Consulates--who have lesser diplomatic immunity than missions to the United Nations--primarily issue visas, promote commerce and look after foreign nationals.
U.N. members have more complete diplomatic immunity, and with them, the Giuliani administration is trying a different strategy: embarrassment. In June, the Finance Department posted a list on its Web site of the 25 nations whose missions and consulates have the most unpaid tickets.
Leading the parade was Egypt, with 15,924 tickets totaling $1,629,216. Nigeria was next, with 10,301 tickets worth $1,140,725; followed by Kuwait, with 8,775 tickets valued at $981,571.
"Perhaps a little publicity will prompt some of our friends in the diplomatic community to live up to their responsibilities," Eristoff said. His office each month sends consulates and missions a statement of unpaid parking fines. Some U.N. missions with thousands of tickets have only a few cars--meaning their vehicles may be getting three or four summonses a day.
Diplomats are parking illegally, city officials complain, while spaces remain empty in a large garage beneath the United Nations headquarters alongside the East River.
Calls to the Egyptian and Kuwaiti missions were unanswered by diplomats important enough to comment about the ticket backlog. But envoys in the past have complained that New Yorkers sometimes park in spaces set aside for diplomats or that police write tickets for cars with DPL, or diplomat, license plates when they are parked in proper places.
In 1997, Giuliani--declaring he wouldn't care if the U.N. moved out of the city--proposed to the Clinton administration that the State Department revoke the special DPL plates for diplomats who ignore parking summonses.
The State Department refused to go along with the mayor's plan.