NEW PALESTINE — Five months after the inaugural New Palestine Chamber Fest, local officials are criticizing festivity organizers who chamber officials say went $20,000 over budget, draining the chamber’s reserve budget.
Officials said the event, which featured live music, food trucks and vendors, depleted the New Palestine Area Chamber of Commerce’s savings account and left its checking account with less than $2,000, officials said.
The chamber’s annual operating budget is $57,000 per year, with funds generated through dues and proceeds from the annual Independence Day Celebration, golf outing, Dragon Dash and Christmas Walk.
Chamber Fest 2016 event was the first of its kind for the small town business association, which has about 165 members.
Chamber officials had a fixed operating budget, estimated at $45,000, for the event. They tasked a committee, led by then-chamber coordinator Caralee Griffith and then-chamber treasurer Greg Douglas, to lead the project.
The cost of the event to date totals estimate at $66,734, chamber officials said. The 2017 event has already been canceled for lack of funding, with chamber officials saying they will consider a more scaled-down event to celebrate the Fourth of July.
For the Chamber Fest, the leaders hired a musical group at a cost of about $30,000, closed down the town’s main street and brought in vendors, bounce houses, dozens of portable bathrooms and crowd control officials who were paid to provide security.
The hope was to attract between 10,000 and 20,000 people, but the reality brought far fewer; final crowd estimates ranged from 5,000 to 7,000 patrons.
Chamber bylaws state no committee may exceed its appropriation without the consent of the board of directors, and consent wasn’t given, chamber officials said.
“They overspent,” longtime chamber member Gary Halliburton said. “You are never supposed to spend any more on any project than you bring in.”
Chamber officials didn’t find out about the financial issue until September, after Griffith had resigned from her post to take another position, they said. Griffith, who joined the chamber in September of 2011 as their coordinator, now serves as the activities director at Woodland Terrace, a senior living facility in New Palestine.
In September, chamber president Becky Gaines noticed an envelope of unpaid bills associated with Chamber Fest, totaling several thousand dollars, she said.
When asked about the bills, Douglas resigned as chamber treasurer shortly thereafter, officials said.
“We’re still looking to figure out all the facts,” Halliburton said.
Douglas could not be reached for comment.
Griffith emailed a statement to the Daily Reporter but declined to comment further.
“It is my thought that it is unprofessional to comment on these grievances in a public forum such as a meeting or the media,” she wrote. “What I will say, though, is that I was an excellent employee for six years. The highlight of my tenure with the chamber was the Chamber Fest.”
Chamber officials said they have since added safeguards to make sure they don’t have another overspending issue again, Halliburton said.
They’ll have committee leaders, selected from the 10-person board, check in and show paper work at the beginning of each project and then throughout the planning process, Halliburton said.
They are also working with Chamber business leaders, accountants and board members to create a recovery plan to make sure events, such as the Christmas Walk will take place, but on a smaller scale.