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NAPLES, Italy — Sailors in southern Italy must pay out of their pockets for Italian license plates by next year, while the Army and Air Force in the northern part of the country are picking up the tab for their troops.

Commander, Navy Region Europe announced recently that owners of Allied Forces Italy-registered vehicles must replace AFI plates with Italian cover plates by June 2004. The Army and Air Force issued similar guidance to reduce the visibility of troops and family members.

Each service determined who would cover the cost of the required plates.

In southern Italy (including Naples, Gaeta, La Maddalena and Sicily), sailors and Department of Defense civilians must pay 40 euros for car plates, 20 euros for motorcycle plates.

“The Department of the Navy’s position is [that] … appropriated funds cannot be used to pay for personal expense,” said Capt. Dave Frederick, Naples commanding officer.

The Army and Air Force decided otherwise.

“I’d be happy if the Navy bought these plates, but that’s not going to happen,” Frederick said.

Servicemembers whose vehicle registration expires within six months of their planned rotation date can keep their AFI plates.

The Army and Air Force are paying for the plates at bases in northern Italy. The Army is sending a few troops south to Naples at the end of May to issue and install the plates for about 125 vehicles at no cost to soldiers, said an official with the Vicenza vehicle registration office. It wasn’t known whether the Air Force is covering the cost for airmen in southern Italy.

The Naples Central Motor Vehicle Registration Office is fielding about 100 calls a day from people wanting to know how to get the plates and why they have to pay since the switch is required, said the office’s director, Lt. Robert Overturf.

Frederick said some Americans are concerned that, by blending in, they may lose some of the support they rely on when they are on the road.

“If someone [with an AFI plate] is broken down, phone calls come in quickly,” he said.

Others, however, said they feel safer with Italian plates.

“I hated the AFI tags; you’re such a target,” said Nan Thyssen, a military family member.

There will still be some AFI plates on the road; NATO members aren’t required to make the change, and official government vehicles will still bear AFI official tags.

The Italian plates used to be optional; they cost 80 euros and took a couple of months to receive.

The U.S. military has been negotiating with Italian ministries for a few years to change the process. The talks resulted in cheaper plates and a more streamlined process; car owners have to wait only about 30 minutes instead of two months to get the plates, Overturf said.

Car owners are still charged $5 to initially register their vehicles in the AFI system, but the fee will be eliminated soon.

“We are struggling every day to improve processes and make things better,” Overturf said.

Registrants also must pay a 5 euro customs fee, which goes into a superfund to cover charges when an AFI vehicle is stolen.

“According to Italian customs laws, if a vehicle that is registered within the AFI system is stolen … importation fees may then be charged against the vehicle,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer James Slater, Naples base spokesman. “The reason is that most vehicles within the AFI system have been imported tax-free. Should that vehicle be stolen, then customs has the right to charge importation fees for that vehicle.”

The fee may be as high as 40 percent of the vehicle’s value.

Last year, registrants paid the Naples Central Motor Vehicle Registration Office 48,540 euros in customs fees. The U.S. government paid the Italian government about 101,552 euros in customs fees for about 120 stolen AFI vehicles belonging to people in the Naples CMVRO area, which includes Naples, Gaeta, La Maddalena and Sicily.

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