MORPETH’S business group has been left virtually penniless after falling victim to an alleged theft.
The Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade has a substantial black hole in its accounts, with barely any capital or reserves left.
The chamber is still investigating the extent of its missing funds, but the Herald understands it could be as much as £20,000.
Treasurer Mark Trill, 60, was arrested on suspicion of theft and has been bailed pending further inquiries.
Chairman John Beynon said: “We are busy trying to work it all out to get the figures, but our worst-case-scenario is that this could have almost wiped out the chamber’s funds.”
Committee members were called to an emergency meeting last week to discuss the situation and an extraordinary meeting was due to take place last night to inform general members.
Mr Beynon, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, immediately offered his resignation from the group, but it was rejected unanimously by the committee. He was expected to offer it again last night.
Other organisations, including Morpeth Town Council, the Greater Morpeth Development Trust and county councillors, have given their support to the chamber and are in talks to step into the breach if it can no longer commit to its usual programmes.
Member Charles Sellers said: “Fair Day and Golf Day are our two fundamental events and they will go ahead no matter what. In a sense we have been virtually cleared out of working capital and all of our reserves so where we would normally contribute to the Christmas lights it is unlikely that we could afford to do that.
“The other area that we would not be able to commit to this year would be putting the amount of money we usually do into Morpeth In Bloom.
“There is a risk of that, which is particularly unfortunate because Morpeth is in Britain In Bloom this year and I believe it is representing Northumberland.
“I think the town council is now looking at what it can do to make sure that this still gets fully funded and supported.”
The chamber is now making contingency plans to carry out extra fund-raising activities.
Mr Sellers said: “The additional things we do will have to go back into the chamber to give us some reserves and working capital so other people may still have to provide the support needed for the Christmas lights and In Bloom costs.
“It is really unfortunate.”
However, he said members have been cheered by the support the organisation has been offered since the problem came to light last Thursday.
“We have been speaking to the town council and people from the county council and they are all very keen to ensure that the chamber of trade continues,” he said.
“It is really heartening and quite amazing that a lot of the county councillors and the town council have said how important the chamber of trade is to the town.
“They are saying the town needs the chamber. That is the first time in my short history with the chamber that this has been recognised by the councillors.”
Mr Sellers added that members are fully behind their chairman and he believes that Mr Beynon is the best person to steer the group through the crisis.
He said: “John Beynon has formally offered his resignation. I personally feel he is the right man to lead us through the recovery and to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
“The role of the chairman, particularly over the last three years, has become extremely time-consuming and there are very few people who have the ability or the time to commit to the work in the way that John has.
“I think we should support the officers we have who are working hard to plug the shortfall.”