After approving retroactive property tax refunds of nearly $19,000 for a disabled veteran, the Baltimore County Council is moving to limit its liability on back payments to three years.
The refunds were granted to Ronald A. Rokoff of Caves Road under a state law exempting fully disabled veterans from paying property taxes.
While the state limits retroactivity to three years, local jurisdictions set their limits -- and Baltimore County has none. Mr. Rokoff's claim covered taxes he had paid since 1988.
"I figure three years is reasonable. Make it the same as state law," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder of Fullerton, co-sponsor with fellow Democrat Kevin Kamenetz of a council bill setting the limit.
Mr. Kamenetz, who represents Pikesville-Randallstown, noted the "tremendous financial windfall" granted to Mr. Rokoff.
The size of the refund, along with the veteran's address in the wealthy, wooded Caves Valley area of the county, drew the councilmen's attention -- although the tax exemption is provided regardless of financial means.
In a routine council vote Dec. 18, Mr. Rokoff was granted refunds of $18,165 in county property taxes and $565 for state property taxes since 1993. He could not be reached for comment.
The council also approved a $5,779 refund for another disabled veteran, Jerry E. McPherson of Halethorpe, that night. "I was just sort of pleased at whatever I could get back," said Mr. McPherson, 46, a former Army communications specialist whose refunds covered taxes paid since 1992.
The program benefits any veteran with a 100 percent disability that is service-related, regardless of wealth -- a point that occasionally has raised questions, according to Robert Young, associate director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.
"You can have a very expensive home. This is a major benefit," Mr. Young said. He noted that the General Assembly wanted any veteran found 100 percent disabled to have the exemption.
The county bill to limit retroactive claims brought a mixed reaction from veterans groups.
Thomas C. Johns, adjutant general and director of Disabled American Veterans of Maryland Inc., said his group does not object to a three-year limit -- a "window of opportunity" he deemed necessary for the time it may take to obtain disability certification from the Veterans Administration.
"We don't have problems with fiscal responsibility," he said.
But George Grossnickle, commander of Parkville American Legion Post 183, objected to the limit. "I wouldn't see why they want to change," he said. "They're knocking veterans' benefits."
Only a handful of veterans become eligible for the exemption -- or belatedly learn about it -- each year, and officials in the Baltimore area say few veterans claim it.
Their refund policies vary. Anne Arundel County allows retroactive refunds up to five years; Baltimore City and Carroll and Howard counties conform to the state standard of three years; and Harford County allows refunds only for the current year, said its deputy treasurer, John Scottea.
Baltimore County Auditor Brian J. Rowe said he has no estimate on of the program's cost to the county, and does did not know how many veterans have received the tax exemption. The bill limiting retroactivity, introduced Feb. 5, is expected to be voted on next month.