A Harford sexual assault and rape crisis center has decided to end its efforts to buy Forward Step Inc., the county's only shelter for abused and battered women.

"I guess the bottom line is they don't want to sell to SARC (Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse and Rape Crisis Center). So we're back to square one," said Paul Ishak, a lawyer who sits on the board of directors for the Bel-Air based SARC.

J. William McNally, executive director of Forward Step, contends SARC and Forward Step never really entered into formal negotiations for the sale of the shelter.

"Forward Step never was for sale," McNally said Thursday. "We were never in any negotiations with SARC. As far as I'm concerned, we never entertained an offer from them."

Ishak had contacted McNally on SARC's behalf in March 1990 in SARC's effort to purchase the shelter.

Copies of letters between SARC and and the non-profit Forward Step Inc.

show McNally first suggested SARC buy the Edgewood-based Forward Step shelter in March 1989.

In a March 23, 1989, letter, McNally wrote to Donna Hanby deBussy, SARC's executive director: ". . . it might be advantageous to the homeless and the clients that you serve for you to take over the responsibilities of Forward Step. . . . This would mean in my mind, buying out Forward Step."

Ishak then contacted McNally on SARC's behalf in March 1990 and requested that SARC be allowed to have independent appraisers visit the shelter to determine a fair market price.

Ishak said McNally initially agreed to that proposal. But McNally said he turned the idea down and that Forward Step would have an appraisal made on its own.

Forward Step has had its federal, state and county grant money cut off because of county officials' concerns about the shelter's financial management.

County documents show the money has not been released since February 1989 because county Treasurer James M. Jewell is concerned that the shelter has not had yearly audits performed. In a Feb. 22, 1989, letter, Jewell said money received by the shelter "was not adequately accounted for."

Jewell has also expressed concern about McNally's positions as executive director of Forward Step Inc. and as a limited and general partner in Forward Step Limited Partnership, which owns the shelter.

The shelter has also faced zoning problems since June, when it was cited for a violation for housing homeless men instead of women as is required by its building permit. McNally has applied for a change in variance. Pending a hearing, which has not been scheduled, no further action can be taken against the shelter.

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