Tennessee Valley Authority's vice president of security said realignment of the agency's police operation is designed to maximize resources and provide more protection for what he calls "critical infrastructure."
In the process, David Jolley said security at TVA's properties in the seven-state region will be more efficient and better.
"We have a strong commitment to our physical infrastructure," Jolley said. "We want security to be the best it can be at our critical infrastructure (sites)."
Last week, TVA announced plans to eliminate 61 positions within the TVA police force — 55 patrol officers and six supervisors. Six police positions are being eliminated in the Shoals as part of the plan.
Local law enforcement officials have been vocal in their concerns about the decision and in what they perceive as a lack of communication, especially considering their departments are being asked to pick up the slack in some areas.
TVA's Muscle Shoals Reservation has 2,600 acres and the agency has hundreds of additional acres along the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama.
Law enforcement officers from Lauderdale and Colbert counties have met separately to discuss the plan. A joint meeting is scheduled Friday at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, and Jolley has been invited to answer questions.
Spencer Collier, Alabama's Homeland Security director, and Art Faulkner, of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, also are expected to attend.
TVA said patrol officers will be eliminated within 60 days.
Jolley said the agency could have done a better job of notification.
"We had hoped the 60-day window would allow us time to meet with all of the affected agencies, but things have happened very fast," Jolley said.
He emphasized TVA police are not going away completely, just changing appearance.
Jolley said TVA will be spending $3 million-$4 million to improve security at its physical infrastructures by updating technology such as surveillance cameras. He said the new efficiency plan could save TVA up to $3 million per year.
"(Our security) is going to be better, just look different," Jolley said.
He said TVA will have contract security officers at its 11 fossil plants in the region, including Colbert Steam Plant. He said an inspection supervisor, inspector and investigator will still be stationed at the TVA reservation in Muscle Shoals.
"Plus, we will have at least one and hopefully two contract security guards on duty on every shift at the reservation," Jolley said.
Officials from several local agencies say they are worried about security in areas other than the reservation.
"We just don't have the manpower to patrol the TVA property," Lauderdale County Sheriff Ronnie Willis said.
Colbert County Sheriff Ronnie May agreed.
"We will always try to assist any agency in any way we can when the manpower is there," May said. "We don't have the manpower to patrol the area outside the reservation."
Sheffield Police Chief Greg Ray said his department has no plans to patrol TVA property. He said he also has questions about the proposed contract security officers who will be stationed on the reservation.
"What qualifications will they have?" Ray asked. "Will it be people who have prior police training, will they be carrying a firearm, have arrest powers or are they merely going to be watchmen? Will they just turn and call someone else if something happens?
"We don't mind assisting. If I'm going to back someone up, I like to know what I'm going to back up. Are they going to be whistle-blowers and flashlight toters or carrying a 9 mm guns and handcuffs?"
Jolley called them "contract officers."
He also emphasized that TVA will maintain a dispatch system that will operate 24 hours a day.
"If a call comes in, we will go to the contract guards," Jolley said. "If they can't get there, we'll call on local authorities for help, just like we do now."
He said he doesn't anticipate local agencies to be asked to assist significantly more than they are now. He said TVA police responded to five automobile accidents on the reservation last year.
"We might have to call on them from time to time, but any changes at all will be minimal," Jolley said.
Local authorities also have voiced question about jurisdiction issues. Jolley said there is a memorandum of understanding between TVA and the state of Alabama signed in 1998 by former Gov. Fob James that gives local law enforcement agencies authority on TVA property. He said TVA attorneys have reviewed the document and say it is still valid.
He also said that memorandum of understanding overrides an article of the U.S. Constitution that states the federal government shall have exclusive legislative jurisdiction over TVA property.
Jolley said it is not TVA's intent to "overburden" local law enforcement. He said if the realignment become a burden on local authorities, TVA will look for alternatives, although the giant utility is financially strapped.
"We had to look at how we were doing our job, look at ways to be more efficient and get the best bang for the buck," Jolley said. "We believe this system will be more effective and more efficient for doing business."
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.