Ouzts straightened out financial woes, brought growth to Winder
Mayors moving on: Buddy (Lamar) Ouzts

Editor's note: For political, health or personal reasons, seven of Gwinnett's and Barrow's mayors are stepping down at the end of this year. Here's a look at the leaders who helped build and transform the local community.

WINDER - Buddy Ouzts didn't want to run for mayor to start with, he said.

"I remember my daddy being in office and I never wanted no part of it," Ouzts said, recalling the two terms Guy Ouzts served in the 1950s when the first Mayor Ouzts brought natural gas to the area.

"We had to do something because the city couldn't get along with the county at all," Ouzts said. "I couldn't hardly go to lunch for people asking me to run for mayor. My sister marched into my office one day and said, 'If you don't run, I will.' Well, Colleen didn't know anything about running a business, so I ran. After such a public outcry, I won by 750 votes."

In his 72 years, Ouzts has seen many changes in Barrow's county seat. A lifetime resident of Winder, he led the city for 16 years and is one of the area's longest-serving elected officials.

His good head for business that made Ouzts Chevrolet a success led Winder from dire financial straits into a city that today holds $4.6 million in reserves. Winder has not collected property taxes since 1977, relying on proceeds from the water department.

He didn't know what he was getting into until his first day in office.

"In the auto business, cash flow is everything," Ouzts said. "I got sworn in on Tuesday and went to City Hall on Wednesday and said, 'How much money do we have?' The girl showed me a cash register tape that said $35,000. I said, 'Is this $350,000?' and she said. 'No, it's $35,000 and we have an $80,000 payroll on Friday.'"

Ouzts cashed in one of Winder's three $100,000 certificates of deposit to meet payroll, then froze everything, he said.

"I bought everything, if it was a pencil or a car," Ouzts said. "We were past due everywhere. City Hall didn't even have a fax machine, the garage didn't have a valve grinding machine. I brought some of my own equipment in so they could fix cars. I got into every department and turned the city's finances around in six months. Every day I had a financial report for years and years."

That initial crisis set the pace for Ouzts' administration, said Jane Skelton, retired city clerk.

"He always has to have a project going, and he thrived on juggling many projects," she said, referring to his bringing in the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the Adult and Continuing Education Center, the new Community Center and theater and his international work with the Lion's Club.

"He really believed in service," Skelton said. "He always insisted that a real person answer the phone."

Growth and traffic have been Ouzts' biggest frustrations, a situation he might have inadvertently started, he said.

"I saw that Auburn was growing, and half of it was on the Atlanta phone exchange and its property brought more money than that across the street that wasn't on the exchange," Ouzts said. "People in Winder had to call long distance to their jobs and everywhere else. Me and (former County Commission Chairman) Eddie Elder went to the PSC and got us on the Atlanta exchange and that's what I believe is responsible for Winder's growth."

Ouzts and Carol, his wife of 51 years, plan to continue their work with the Lion's Club and Habitat for Humanity, as well as raise orchids, Ouzts' personal hobby.

"I told them the last time I was sworn in four years ago I wasn't going to run again and no one believed me," Ouzts said. "It has been a great trip, but it's time for me to move on. I'll start back selling cars. I keep a project all the time."