THOUSANDS of struggling families on benefits are facing being plunged into financial misery with plans to make them pay up to £135 towards their council tax.
Around 8,500 homes will be affected if, as expected, plans to increase council tax bills are approved at a meeting tonight.
They have already had to make a £95 contribution after Government cuts forced Hartlepool Borough Council to claw back cash.
Now further Whitehall funding cuts will see the local authority ask for up to £10 extra a month from cash-strapped homes.
This could rise even firther in 2015-16, with a 20 per cent predicted rise taking Band A property payments to £225 each year.
Today, one town man who claims benefits after an unsuccessful search for work, claims he is already struggling to make ends meet after being hit with increased bills for the controversial Bedroom Tax last year.
Jason Gaffney, a 25-year-old unemployed artist, stands to see the council tax bill for his flat in Stockton Road rocket by £40 under the proposals.
He said: “I think people who are already suffering most are just taking the most pressure.”
Hartlepool Council has described the move as “unavoidable”.
The changes to the council tax benefit system were introduced nationally last April after councils were given the power to administer the benefit from Government, but with a 10 per cent cut in funding.
Hartlepool Council was hit with a £1.5m pot of money taken away, which was 13.4 per cent of the money it had previously set aside to cover council tax payments.
Because pensioners are among the vulnerable groups protected, Hartlepool Council was initially considering introducing a 20 per cent cut in levels of council tax benefit for others under its localised council tax support (LCTS) scheme.
But it was agreed last year there would be an 8.5 per cent reduction for this financial year and the council is now proposing to increase that to 12 per cent in 2014-15 before rising to 20 per cent in 2015-16.
A 20 per cent cut would see residents in a Band A property paying £225 a year.
Finance chiefs previously argued continuing to phase the reduction would still help households but also allow the council to share the grant cut across the general fund and the LCTS scheme.
But the local authority is facing further budget cuts of up to £21m between now and 2016-17 - with a “spending power” cut of £680 per household.
The proposals, which would come in from April, have been discussed by the finance and policy committee, chaired by council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher, and will go before an extraordinary meeting of the full council tonight.
Senior councillors say Hartlepool Council has tried its best to mitigate the circumstances on those most affected but a rise is unavoidable.
A report by Chris Little, chief finance officer, said: “The council has only been able to operate a 2013-14 LCTS scheme involving an 8.5 per cent LCTS cut and a recommended 12 per cent cut for 2014-15, as a result of previous decisions to earmark one off resources to assist with the implementation and operation of the Hartlepool LCTS scheme.
“The other four Tees Valley Authorities all implemented LCTS cuts of 20 per cent in 2013-14 and it is understood will continue with these arrangements into 2014-15.”
In town, a total of 15,000 households receive the council tax benefit, including 6,600 pensioner households and 8,500 working age households, with £12.25m of benefit awarded annually.
It is the working age housefilds who will be affected by the price hike when it comes into force.
UNEMPLOYED artist Jason Gaffney stands to see his council tax go up by £40 under the proposals.
The 25-year-old lives in a Band A two-bedroom flat in Stockton Road, Hartlepool, and already struggles to get by after being hit by the controversial Bedroom Tax last year which targeted people with unoccupied rooms in their homes.
When he pays for his rent, food and utility bills he is often left with as little as £1.50 in his pocket.
Speaking about the proposed cut in the council’s Localised Council Tax Support Scheme, Jason said: “I don’t see any fairness in it really.
“I was told the council had money left over from last year which they were using to ease things like the Bedroom Tax.
“So on top of other cuts that the Government is making, people are already finding it incredibly difficult.
“I think for the council to increase cuts like this, people are going to be extremely offended.”
Jason has A-levels and a degree in art, but he has been unable to find work.
He added: “A couple of days before my benefits are paid, there is pretty much nothing left in the pot.
“I’m sure it is like that for most people in a similar situation to myself.
“To be asked to pay out more from that pot of money is going to make things even more difficult than they already are.”
HOW CHANGES COULD AFFECT YOU
THE proposal for the 2014-15 financial year is to increase the annual council tax liability from 8.5 per cent to 12 per cent, and then up to 20 per cent for 2015-16.
For those living in a Band A property, it will see their bills rise from £95 this year to £135 next year and up to £225 in 2015-16.
For those eligible residents living in a Band B property, it will see their bills rise from £111 this year to £157 with the 12 per cent reduction next year.
Then, in 2015-16 they would be paying £262 a year.