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Pasco school district scrutinizes creative life insurance offer

Published Apr. 9, 2014

A group of New York investors wants to buy life insurance for all Pasco County school district employees at no cost to the staff.

But the proposal, which would generate tax-free returns for the investors, has district officials wondering if there's a catch to what they're calling the "legacy life" plan.

"We've been spending the last six to seven months trying to make sure it isn't too good to be true," said Kevin Shibley, executive director for administration.

Those questions arose from the way advisers have described the model to the school district. They laid out how it works for School Board members in a recent workshop like this:

Four New York families would put $100 million each into a premium on life insurance policies for Pasco's 9,769 school workers. The district would create a trust through which the employees could be insured and their families be paid a $50,000 benefit after they die. The district also would get a $50,000 benefit when an employee dies. Neither the district nor the employees would pay anything.

Financial advisers told the district that they project about 13 deaths per year in the early stages of the 55-year program. In the meantime, the initial $400 million would be invested — the financial advisers won't divulge how — and generate tax-free returns for the families.

Life insurance is one of the few investment areas in federal tax law that is not taxed.

Swiss Re, one of the world's largest reinsurance firms, is participating in the system, which it devised and is promoting to nonprofit entities like governments and hospitals nationwide. Reinsurance is an added layer of coverage offered to insurance companies.

Pollock Financial Group brought the new "benefit stabilization funding" concept, which is patented by Swiss Re, to the Pasco district to become one of the first nonprofit entities in Florida to participate.

Former Texas insurance commissioner Bob Hunter, now with the Consumer Federation of America, said the district is right to act cautiously.

Proper funding will be key to the success, he noted. The plan must be counting on a high percentage of young people to make it work, he said. "The investors will get their money back with their profit if it all works."

The district has asked lawyers, bond counsel and investment advisers to examine the proposal, offering refinements along the way. At one point, for instance, the investors were to receive a death benefit along with the employees and district, but that was changed.

Now the policies would be owned solely by the district and workers. The investors' gains would come from a segregated account of the lump-sum premium they supply.

"Our biggest concern is that we don't get the school district or employees into a situation where they think they're getting something that they don't end up getting," Shibley said.

Nashville-based insurance and financial services broker Ed Netherland, a consultant to Swiss Re and Pollock Financial, acknowledged School Board members' jitters during a workshop last week.

"It sounds a little bit too good to be true, so let's figure out how it works out," Netherland said.

He led the board through the ins and outs of the proposal, telling them a team of lawyers found it "perfectly legal." He added that actuarial tables, which the district did not have, verified the viability of the program.

Netherland has created similar life insurance approaches before, working with investors including Warren Buffett.

Some board members remained skeptical despite Netherland's assurances.

"We want to make sure it's safeguarded," Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. Even if it passes all the tests, she added, "the question is, do we want to be among the first to try it?"

Board member Allen Altman, an insurance salesman, had fewer reservations. He said private businesses already do it.

"The employee has the opportunity to name the beneficiary and get the full benefit," Altman said. "I believe that any time you can provide these types of benefits to the employees' families and taxpayers at no risk to the district, we have a responsibility to explore it fully."

Bill Olive of Pollock Financial Group Inc. said he brought the concept to the district because he lives in the area and has teachers in his family. He saw it as a positive benefit for employees, who don't get paid much, and the district, which can use the proceeds to bolster its benefits programs.

United School Employees of Pasco representatives have supported the plan, but raised questions about the benefit amounts. Shibley said he planned to schedule talks to work out any differences before the board votes on the proposal in late April or May.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at