LOWELL -- A veteran city department head's investigation into exorbitant bills issued by the Lowell Regional Water Utility revealed "very disturbing billing practices" at the utility, including what was termed "manual manipulation" of billing numbers by an employee.

The probe's findings also indicate Daniel Lahiff, who was forced to resign as executive director of the utility last week, did little to address concerns brought to him about billing discrepancies.

Wastewater Utility Executive Mark Young, in his investigation provided to City Manager Kevin Murphy, wrote that multiple employees told him "billing numbers were being manually manipulated where there was no reason to do so."

Young identified the employee responsible as Billing Administrator Tim Keefe, whom meter readers said had told them "not to bother trying to get readings at certain accounts," according to the investigation.

"Meter readers also spoke of the issue that some of the reading numbers were changed by the billing administrator once they were downloaded into his computer," wrote Young, highlighting that meter readers don't have access to the computer-billing system.

Meter readings are used to determine water bills, though some residents have recently received bills in the thousands of dollars because of years of estimated readings, which underestimated water usage.


Young wrote that his investigation showed that Keefe "does not possess the skills and training to adequately perform his job duties."

"It is my opinion that the billing administrator was not malicious in his attempt to change numbers in accounts to deceive the citizens of Lowell but did it so that it would not come to the attention of his supervisor as he was afraid of confrontation with the director," Young wrote in his report to Murphy, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun late Thursday.

"The relationship between the executive director and billing administrator could be best described as strained," he wrote.

Keefe notified the city this week of his plans to retire and said Thursday he will be submitting his retirement on Friday. He has been billing administrator for 16 years, and worked for the city 27 years.

A source said Keefe was told to resign or be terminated, much like the ultimatum given to Lahiff, but Keefe denied that was the case.

"I've been doing it 16 years and it is the worst job in the city," Keefe said. "It is someone else's turn."

Keefe said there were only two accounts for which he told employees not to check the meters because one had a long-broken meter and another had a long-buried meter.

He also told The Sun he never changed meter readings that had been entered into the computer.

Keefe said if a meter had not been read in years and then an actual reading came in that was not close to the last prior actual meter reading, he would not put it into the system unless he received confirmation the new reading was correct.

He blamed the billing issues on Lahiff, whom he said he had told for years about broken water meters throughout the city that needed fixing, but nothing was done.

"Mr. Lahiff did nothing but cook eggs in the morning and chicken in the afternoon," Keefe said. "He was running an out-of-control Water Department."

As for Young's findings, Keefe said: "Mr. Young throws out these accusations because he is Mr. Lahiff's buddy."

Young said previously he had a professional working relationship with Lahiff, but not an "off hours" personal relationship.

Lahiff did not respond to a request for comment.

Young did find that "almost unanimously" employees interviewed attributed estimated instead of actual meter readings to the large number of broken meters and automatic reading meter boxes.

Lahiff was notified in the fall of 2013 by two employees, including Distribution Superintendent Tony Capachietti, about concerns about Keefe's handling of billing matters. The two employees recommended Lahiff bring the issue to the attention of the city manager and Law Department, according to Young.

"The executive director did not act on this information," Young wrote. "Although the distribution superintendent gave further evidence to the executive director the manipulation of water accounts was still not brought to the attention of the city manager or Law Department."

The investigation also revealed a meter reader was once caught sleeping while on duty behind the Brunswick Bowling Alley and again caught reading a comic book in a city vehicle in the parking lot of JJ Boomers. No disciplinary action was taken.

Murphy declined comment Thursday evening saying he wanted to give city councilors time to review the results of the investigation first.

Follow Moran on Twitter @lylemoran.