In the other cases, Kraus said, the special tax is a lien on the property that must be paid. "I think if you look at other states and areas that have problems, it's because they don't have that mechanism available to them," he said.
But even when other taxpayers aren't stuck covering shortfalls, critics say they can still be affected, just less directly. Some academics see the TIF tool as a game of municipal musical chairs, giving to one area by taking from another.
"My own work in Illinois suggests that all TIF does is move things around," said Richard Dye, a professor at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. "TIF does not increase the tax base."
Dye pointed to other potential downsides. It can be less transparent than other spending, he said, because key negotiations often happen outside the usual public process. Also, because the money is earmarked from the start, there's no debate about whether public money should be spent on, say, a waterfront park or a school.
And it's often hard to tell whether development truly wouldn't happen without the boost, said David F. Merriman, who has teamed up with Dye on property tax research.
"You get into a kind of game theory thing here: Of course the developer has an incentive to threaten to back out if he doesn't get it," said Merriman, associate director of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Still, David Versel, a George Mason University researcher and former land-use economics consultant, said there's a simple reason cities and suburbs keep turning to such financing: Although they've historically handled the infrastructure, they can't cover the tab as before.
"The mountain of federal funding that used to support infrastructure is gone," he said.