A resident who fails to pay their first month’s council tax bill of £167 can see the cost increase to £2,065 in nine weeks, according to Citizens Advice.
The missed payment in England and Wales can mean they are liable for the rest of the annual bill, as well as court costs of £84 and bailiff fees of £310.
The charity wants the rules changed to ensure people whose finances are stretched do not receive a big bill.
Councils say people in financial blight can be supported.
The government is also reviewing the rules surrounding the way local authorities collect council tax.
‘It became very stressful’
The calculations by Citizens Advice were based on a resident missing the very first bill of the financial year, which typically cost £167 in England. As a result, the full bill of £1,671 could be levied. This outstanding bill would be lower if a payment was missed later in the year.
Mark, who is unemployed and has mental health problems, is one of those who has faced such a situation.
“Last year was not a good year in terms of my health or finances. I had so many debts that it became very stressful and hard to find a way to make my money stretch to cover them all,” the 53-year-old told Citizens Advice.
“In August, a letter arrived from a bailiff. I had become liable for the full year bill and my council tax debt was now with them. I felt really intimidated.”
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Citizens Advice said that 9% of households in England fell behind on council tax payments in 2017-18, and it wants the rules changed so the full year charge and the threat of imprisonment for arrears in England are removed.
“Council tax regulations make it harder for people to pay their original debts instead of helping them to get their finances back on track,” said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.
However, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, urged anyone in financial trouble to get in touch with their local authority for help, saying they would be supported.
Although it pointed out that council tax was vital for services such as social care, bin collection and children’s services, it said it welcomed the government review.
“Councils want it to be easier to recover money without having to go to the courts so would be in favour of a review of the regulations, including whether to remove the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed,” said Richard Watts, of the LGA.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it expected councils to be “sympathetic to those in genuine hardship and proportionate in enforcement”.
Potential reforms of the system could be proposed later this year following the review, it said.