Chiang Mai mayor answers YOUR questions

Citylife Chiang Mai readers ask questions of the mayor

By | Mon 3 Aug 2020

Chiang Mai Mayor Tasanai Buranupakorn oversees many areas which include clean water supply, waste and sewage disposal, communicable disease control, public training and education, public hospitals and electricity, etc. for the 40 square km city of Chiang Mai. He was voted in by eligible voters in the municipal area on the 3rd November 2013 for a four-year term which was supposed to expire in 2017, but following the coup there has yet to be a new election, so he is still sitting in office pending the next election.

The municipal council of 24 elected members is the legislative body of the municipality with powers to issue ordinances as long as they do not contradict the laws of the country. For clarity, Citylife has edited your questions and his answers:

Q: What are your current priorities?

A: It is a time of much adjustment. Our annual budget is normally around 1.6 billion baht. But this year the budget has shrunk by 300 million due to the reduced tax we are collecting over the pandemic. The first things we have cut are all large projects. Our projects are normally not that huge, nothing in the billions, normally just in the millions. We have also halted all purchases of machinery and equipment unless absolutely essential, instead purchasing tools and raw materials so we can fix or repair what we need with what we have rather than do any rebuilding. There are expenses which we will not cut such as maintenance of public parks, the CCTV system, waste disposal and such. But our main focus right now is on public health.

Basically we have had to readjust our entire plan for the year, keeping to strict budget on any ongoing projects and cancelling all others. The government has reduced tax on land and buildings by 90% this year, so this has affected us greatly as they have told us to deal with our own deficits and solve our own problems. I am not going to criticise what is already the law; there is no point talking about it now. But one thing that I won’t allow is for public health to be affected.

Q: What are you doing on the public health front?

A: We are fully stocked and prepared for things such as rabies or dengue outbreaks, we will spray for mosquitos regularly and have also stockpiled sanitizer gels and masks. I am also very focused on preventive medicine, so we have mobile units which we send around the city at certain times of the month for women to have their breasts examined and providing outreach clinics for the most vulnerable.

Q: The Light Rail Transit was supposed to begin construction this year, where are we at with this?

A: Last time you interviewed me I already warned you that this was unlikely to happen. There is no way it is happening any time soon!

Q: You announced an anti-plastic campaign in 2018, how is it going now?

A: This has been something we have been working on constantly. However, there is no law banning plastic or foam, so we can’t enforce the banning of plastic, only campaign for it. Some markets, such as Thanin Market whose owner is fully supportive of our initiative, have taken it upon themselves to ban its use, kicking out vendors who use plastic or foam containers. But we continue to work with many market owners and try to convince them. Our latest project is to ask cafes to donate their plastic straws which we have turned into pillows. It’s not a significant number, but it’s a start. We now donate 100 plastic-straw-filled pillows a month to the really poor people, the old and the handicapped.

“People feel better to see us out and about spraying the city,

even though we all know it does nothing.”

While the reason for it is depressing, it was also nice to see our waste greatly reduced over the pandemic. We normally produce around 300 tonnes of waste per day, but that number was reduced by about 50 tonnes during the lockdown and we are still down by about 30 tonnes a day.

Q: What about Chiang Mai’s buses?

A: We currently run three routes; Arcade to the airport, Arcade to the CMU campus and Arcade to Nakornping Hospital via the convention centre. These buses were really beginning to get used really well and regularly before the shut down, but now, no, they are not being used so much. It’s the sign of the times.

Q: There have been constant complaints about songtaew – double parking, double pricing and double emissions, what can you do about this?

A: I really can’t step on anyone’s toes here as the songtaew are managed by the Land Transport Department, so it is best to talk to them, I can’t intrude.  [Citylife did an in-depth report on the transportation of Chiang Mai in this article, which should shed some light on the complexities and challenges faced with restructuring the entire system. Here is another fascinating look at the mind of the man who, until this year, ran the songtaew co-op.]

Q: What is being done to create more green spaces in Chiang Mai and have you looked into urban farming?

A: I think that never before has there been more green spaces created in Chiang Mai as over the past ten years. We are averaging a new park every two years. We used to just have Suan Buak Had, now we have the Charoen Prathet, Rama 9, Kanchanapisek, Ban Den, even that land by Regina school you all saved a couple of years ago. We also want to build a little park at the end next to Tha Pae Gate. This is very important to me. As to urban farming, we are already doing that in a few places such as near Chang Klan Crematorium and at Rama 9th park. We collect leaves and branches every Saturday and Sunday, take them to these parks, turn them into vast amounts of compost and we have given plots of land to anyone interested to tend to their own gardens. About 100 families are being fed through these parks now. If your readers have any interest in joining in tell them to contact the municipal’s Sanitation Department. Also don’t forget the vast majority of people in Chiang Mai are in the service industry and don’t know much about growing things, so it may take time to take off.

Q: It is hard to miss the amount of crimes being caught on CCTV these days, would you call this a success story?

A: While this is a visible success, everyone has their own priorities. For me the most successful aspect of my time as mayor has been my internal management. It all comes down to costs and allocating costs. When I took over our debts were over 100 million baht. Last year end we had 1.2 billion baht. That money isn’t cash in pocket of course, it has all been allocated. When I started we had 1,800 staff, today we have 1,300. It is all about streamlining. We didn’t fire anyone, but we would hire smarter. When I first joined there was a 10 million baht budget per year to do anything beyond fixed costs. Today we have around 200-300 million to invest in the city. That is what has paid for the public parks, the CCTV system, the bus system, etc. This is my pride. I am not Harry Potter. I can’t magically make anything happen, so for me it was about making sure we were running lean and strong so we could do more for the city.

Q: Will Loy Krathong happen this year?

A: The current situation means that such decisions are centralised; let’s say we are prepared and ready to, but it will be up to the central government.

Q: What can you do to alleviate the increasingly bad traffic in Chiang Mai?

A: What I really want to do is smart up and expand on our CCTV system. We have great CCTV coverage now but they are often used after a crime or infraction has been committed. I would love to spend one year analysing all of our CCTV footage, through festivals, rush hours, quiet night times, all times of the day and of the year, a total study of our traffic flow. With this we can restructure our entire city’s traffic to be more efficient. Even if we cut down your daily commute time by half, that will improve your quality of life, it will also reduce emissions and the use of energy. Again, the challenge is money. It is not my money to spend, it’s the tax payers’, and a software programme to analyse traffic is abstract enough to be hard to get passed. If I were to spend a few million to fix a bridge, it would all be visible, transparent and tangible. But a software is hard to value. So what I have been doing is try to match software firms who have come with their proposals to the National Innovation Agency to register the software and give it a stamp of approval. I am struggling to find a starting point to this project.

Q: There are constant complaints about the traffic police disproportionately stopping expats and tourists over Thai motorists, do you know about this?

A: Again, I am so sorry but you have to talk to the traffic police.

Q: While pollution is a national, if not regional, problem to fix, what are you doing on your part to combat this annual scourge?

A: We talked about the idea to restructure traffic and to create more green spaces, but we must do more. We have provided safe zones in all school libraries during the danger months and I am going to start talking to tall buildings about using their emergency fire sprinklers. Look, let’s be honest here all that going around town spraying for dust doesn’t do any good at all. Let’s just consider that tree watering and psychological appeasement. It makes many people feel better to see us out and about spraying the city, even though we all know it does nothing. But many experts have told me that if we spray from a much higher level, so from tall buildings, that can actually be effective for a large area surrounding. Maybe we can ask to use their systems for a few hours a day.

Q: A reader has complained about blocked drainage and flooding as well as construction noise and pollution in his area, what recourse does he have.

A: He has every recourse. Please tell me where this is and I can point out to the right local authorities. Everyone has the right to construct, but not to disrupt. Just find out your local authority and contact them.

Q: As Chiang Mai expands is there a plan to make it a more livable city?

A: Yes, always. We want to maintain the charm of Chiang Mai, especially in the old town, hence the many ordinances concerning building and such. I would love to ban cars in the old city, but we need a consensus as many people will be affected, and until we have a good transportation system that won’t work. [Here is an interesting look at Chiang Mai’s growing challenges.]

“While 50% of Chiang Mai’s income comes from tourism,

here in the municipality it’s 70%.”

Q: There were questions from readers about the Mahidol Road pavement and walkways as well as pedestrian crossing at the Maya intersection and the footpath along the Ping River.

A: These questions have to be directed at the Highway Department and the Harbour Department. Honestly, I feel for your farang readers, even I get confused half the time who is responsible for what.

Q: What can you do to bring some international restaurant chains to invest in Chiang Mai?

A: They are all closing now, this isn’t the time.

Q: What can be done to reduce road accidents?

A: You may notice that many of the U-turns have been blocked now. We identified many danger spots and are doing our best to mitigate the danger.

Q: There has been much talk about how there is an emerging culture of xenophobia against westerners these days, what do you think about it?

A: My job doesn’t really involve many expats so I am afraid that this is the first I have heard of this. Maybe it’s just this period of fear and paranoia. Some countries have blamed China for the pandemic and there is a chain effect of fear and distrust. Maybe many Thais can’t differentiate between expats who live here and tourists from Covid hotspots around the world who they see on TV.

Q: Cycling lanes seem to be faded and no longer a talking point after you promoted it many years ago. [Read more about cycling in Chiang Mai here].

A: Honestly the feedback has been that the lanes weren’t used much, so while I would love to see more cycling in the city, I am just not sure our motorists are ready. Again, this is something we can look further into if we had more data. There have also been many cycling accidents, so I do worry that until we can get better lighting in the city and encourage safe cycling, it’s not a priority, though it is my dearest wish.

Q: What can you do to help create jobs as we sink further into economic doldrums?

A: For me personally it is about the big picture and that has to mean pollution. I would love to see the city invest in green, clean and renewable energy. If we can have policies which give tax breaks to those using solar panels, hybrid or electric cars and such, then we can build an entire new economy. But again, this isn’t my call, but the central government’s. So what I can focus on is culture. That is something no one else can do better than us. So by putting ordinances in place for buildings within the old city to confirm to a Lanna aesthetics, we are supporting the local economy in a roundabout way. If a building has to be Lanna in design then it will require woodcarvers, Lanna architects and designers, it will need arts and crafts and textiles created within the local economy. These are jobs no one else can do. I also want to promote our cuisine, really energise the restaurant scene which will support our farmers and producers. We create jobs through culture. In this case culture feeds us.

Q: One of our pet peeves is the number of billboards around town, what are you doing about this?

A: Since you last interviewed me for your story [Chiang Mai Sign City] I have greatly reduced the number of billboards in the city. There isn’t much I can do about privately owned signs on private land, but public ones received so many complaints I have refused to renew many contracts. We also have a dozen or so full time people who ride around town spotting illegal billboards. We contact them to collect tax or we remove them.

Q: How is Chiang Mai going to fare through, and after, the pandemic?

A: I fear it is going to take a long long time to recover. While 50% of Chiang Mai’s income comes from tourism, here in the municipality it’s 70%. Personally I am not sure that what we are doing is worth the cost. We are so focused on chasing the number zero [referring to zero new infections and deaths], but the cost isn’t zero. Why not open up again and we can relax or restrict as per medical capacity? It is getting easier to treat and I think that we all need to control our fear and paranoia. What are we exchanging for this zero? How much damage is zero going to cost? Chiang Mai will not recover for a very long time. What if we starve to death before we get sick to death? This zero is beyond any price.