City indebted to her - Finance director to retire

By Ruth Longoria

Joanne Sylvis has been a fixture in the City of Mercer Island's finances for more than two decades.

Next month, the 61-year-old Sylvis, longtime city finance director, will set aside her ledgers and balance sheets in favor of golf clubs, skis, a few good mystery novels and cross-country driving trips with her husband.

Sylvis is retiring after 22 years at City Hall, a period of time in which the city has thrived financially and continues to receive one of the highest Moody's ratings for city-issued bonds in the state.

``We have good reserves, a good contingency fund and we issue very little debt. Those are all things I'm proud of, the city is proud of, and the citizens should be proud of also,'' Sylvis said.

But, despite her pride in keeping the city stable and her joy in working with what she calls a ``terrific staff and team,'' Sylvis said she's ready to enjoy sleeping in occasionally and not having to be at work on Monday mornings.

``It will be sad, but I'm ready to retire,'' said Sylvis, who recently moved with her husband Chuck to a retirement and golfing community after 30 years in their Redmond home.

``I've been with the city so long it will probably be difficult to get used to the change,'' she said. ``But it's an adventure that will be fun and I'm ready to relax and enjoy life.''

There have been a lot of changes in the city since Sylvis started working there in August 1983.

``You can't even imagine the changes in all that time,'' Sylvis said of the city's move from a main frame computer system (where all of the data was stored on a single computer), green-lined ledger paper, and a typewriter with only courier font.

``I don't think there's even a typewriter left in the city now,'' she joked.

When Sylvis began, city offices were housed at what is now Shorewood Apartments. The Finance Department was set up in an apartment and shared with the now-Deputy City Manager Deb Symmonds, who used the kitchen for her office. File boxes were stored in the bathroom, on a sheet of plywood across the bathtub.

``We used to have to knock on the door and say, `Excuse me, is anyone in there?' and `Could you get me such-and-such file when you're done?''' Sylvis said with a laugh.

In 1988, City Hall moved to its current building, which was previously the Farmer's Insurance building and then the Department of Transportation site, she said.

``We were glad to move, this building was remodeled for us and is a great building,'' she said.

In addition to balancing budgets, Sylvis has balanced her job with her family. Married for almost 32 years, Joanne and Chuck Sylvis have two sons, Christopher, 28, of Seattle, and Sean, 25, of San Francisco.

She was born in Seattle and graduated from Blanchet High School in 1958. She attended the University of California Berkeley, before transferring to the University of Washington, where she earned a bachelor of arts in accounting in 1962. After college, she went to work for the United States General Accounting Office, where she met her husband.

Sylvis was conducting an audit at the city when she first thought about working on the Island.

``I got to know people here and someone later told me about a job opening up; it just seemed like the right place for me,'' she said.

In 1988, Sylvis, a CPA, was promoted to finance director. Symmonds, the deputy city manager, was promoted the same day.

``It was nice, we had three women directors at the time. That wasn't standard at that time in city offices,'' Sylvis said.

Symmonds said she's glad to have known and worked with Sylvis for all of these years.

``Joanne is the consummate finance director and she has been absolutely wonderful for Mercer Island for all of that time,'' Symmonds said. ``She's a very experienced as an auditor and a finance director. And, she's always there to see to the details and work behind the scenes. She's been the glue that holds us all together. We're going to miss her terribly.''

And, though Sylvis has promised to work with her replacement as needed during the transition, Mayor Alan Merkle agrees with Symmonds that it will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to replace Sylvis.

``There's none better. Joanne is by far and away the best finance director a city could have,'' said Merkle, who has worked in city government with Sylvis for the past 14 years.

Merkle said she is capable, efficient and able to do her job in a manner that few could aspire to.

``Internally and externally, throughout her career, she's done an exceptional job,'' he said. ``The city is in good fiscal shape because of her. She's really wonderful.

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